Finding balance - blind faith, skepticism have their place at right time, in moderation

  • Published
  • By Maj. Corey Beaverson
  • 772nd Test Squadron Operations director
When asked to write an article for this column my first thoughts were of not having much to say of value to such a wide audience. After some time it became clear that what I could offer is some insight gained through my blivets - seemingly unsolvable and often unpleasant situations - in the private sector and the Air Force.

As the operations officer for the 772nd Test Squadron, I would consider myself a mid-level leader, at least in the context of the Air Force Flight Test Center and 412th Test Wing. As such, I often find myself communicating commanders' and senior leadership's intent to the squadron and those junior to me. One of the things I have struggled with in this role is skepticism in the audience.

Now don't misunderstand, I have no issue with clarifying direction or a perspective to someone or even questions from an opposing position. But at some point, caveat emptor seems to take over and the devil's advocate becomes more of a problem than an attempt to offer a different perspective. I suppose my struggle lies with an element or characteristic of followership. It's also appropriate to state that I too have found myself questioning how much skepticism is healthy and when and where it's best applied.

Of course, our military is full of examples where there is zero tolerance for skepticism: a Marine storming a beachhead, an infantryman taking a hill, a combat pilot assisting troops in contact, etc. We've freely taken an oath to do just that; do what we're told when we're told to do it.

On the other hand there are many great examples where skepticism is critical to mission accomplishment - test and evaluation of weapon systems for example. If systems always worked as designed we would have found ourselves in a different line of work long ago. I submit though that most of us live and work somewhere between these endpoints of the spectrum and therein lies the basis for potential problems.

I am confident that it would take little effort for any one of us to recall a situation from work where we have formed an opinion about a particular decision or statement that was made by our senior leadership only to change our opinion entirely once a missing piece of information was provided, thus allowing us to see a bigger picture. Likewise, I am sure that we can all remember a time when we were led down a path based on trusting but not verifying what we were told and later found out information was missing that would have influenced a different direction.

It seems easy to recognize that in the workplace, both those with blind faith and the cynical skeptics can be detrimental to accomplishing our mission. So there lies the challenge that we all face - finding balance between the faith that those above us know all of the variables at play and a skepticism that maybe they are missing a detail or a bit of knowledge that we have, and that it might just change the outcome altogether.

To me, one approach to finding the middle ground is to examine the extremes.

In epistemology, the branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge, skepticism is either viewed as a threat or problem that must be dealt with or it's ignored altogether. In more practical terms, a conspiracy theorist is so skeptical that any attempt to offer an alternative view is labeled as part of the conspiracy itself. Another example would be fanatical partisans who surround themselves with the views and media outlets of their own party and abhorrently deny any alternative that calls into question their own views.

In the workplace the extreme skeptic is often one who opposes every idea and rarely if ever offers any solution to a problem. Rather they relish in highlighting the problem instead of teaming to solve it.

The other extreme is blind faith; those who believe in someone or something so completely or for ulterior reasons have chosen to stifle any curiosity and refuse to question even the most obvious red flags.

In the workplace, some would consider these the 'yes men,' those who blindly follow the leader or decision-maker without ever even caring to know the details of why a particular decision was made. Another example is the set-in-his-ways worker, who may very well be accomplishing a task the best way possible, but is unwilling to allow anyone to question that maybe there is a better way. It could be that the worker has fallen into a pattern and come to believe there is no other way or that outside circumstances have changed that no longer require the task to be performed in the same manner.

So the challenge for each of us is understanding the latitude of our individual roles and what our positions in the workplace offer in terms of when it is OK, or even necessary, to be skeptical and when we must salute smartly.

In a similar manner, when Aristotle spoke of courage he said that courage requires avoiding the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Likewise, his treatment of temperance is avoiding the extremes of insensibility and self-indulgence. Unfortunately, there is no recipe, no class or training, and no pill to take to instill healthy skepticism in us.

Some would say it's common sense, it's staying in your lane, it's staying out of others rice bowls. But we all know that sometimes it's a country road with no markings, or a rice bowl on a large platter of nesting bowls. Most of us live and work in between those endpoints of the spectrum. I like to believe that in some cases the recognition of a principle or idea is enough to make us aware, and that awareness spurs a conscious effort with the idea in mind - in this case moderating faith and skepticism in our daily activities.

Ad Inexplorata!