The Tyranny Of Having To Be Right
By Chuck Violand
April 10, 2017
The other night I was having a discussion with my 17-year-old son about a class he’s taking in school. Before I knew it, the conversation had shifted from the original discussion about the content of the class to which one of us was right about the content.
This incident made me think about how often the same thing happens in business. As business owners, we’re called upon to make a lot of decisions. The more decisions we make correctly, the more likely we are to be successful. But it’s easy to trip ourselves up when we become more interested in being right than in making the right decision.
In his book Mind Set!, author John Naisbitt writes about the limiting effect our need to be right can have on us: “People are culturally conditioned to have to be right. The parents are right, the teacher is right, the boss is right. Who is right overrules what is right. Couples have huge quarrels about considerations that are forgotten as the struggle for who is right rages on. Having to be right becomes a barrier to learning and understanding. It keeps you away from growing, for there is no growth without changing, correcting, and questioning yourself.”
The need to be right means that we sometimes stop asking for or listening to the advice of people in our organizations because it just takes too much energy to change our opinion and admit someone else might be right. When this happens, it becomes a self-limiting exercise.
Consider the impact the need to be right can have on two owners who are equal partners. Neither partner wants to be told by the other that he’s not doing his job right. “After all,” they ask themselves, “what authority does my partner have telling me how to do my job? We’re equal partners!” So, rather than exploring with our partner ways to improve our performance, we dig our heels in the sand and insist we’re doing things just fine. As a result, communication breaks down, tensions build up, and improvement stops. And if these two partners are also related to each other, it can be like adding quick-set cement to the heels they’ve dug in the sand.
Sometimes we insist on being right to avoid looking bad, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, a business decision we insisted on goes south. But rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, correcting it, and learning from it, we insist we were right all along and proceed to blame our employees, customers, and equipment for the failure. Or, we deny making the decision in the first place. So, not only do we not learn from our mistakes, but we lose the trust and confidence of the people in our organizations as they look with amazement at our stubbornness.
When it comes to our employees, our need to be right can be driven by our need to preserve the authority of our position. We might think that admitting we’re wrong to an employee will make us look weak, when in reality, the exact opposite is true. Or, we think it would be an admission of our own fallibility. Guess what? Your employees already know you’re fallible. But your candor will elevate you in their eyes. When we are able to “not be right,” we let people know we are approachable, we’re open to learning, and we value their opinions. We also open ourselves up to an entire world of new ideas and opportunities.