At a glance
How comfortable are you with admitting you're wrong?
If the prospect makes you squirm, you are not alone. The desire to be right is a common human impulse, and one that leadership expert Hamish Thomson tackles in his new book, It’s Not Always Right To Be Right.
In the book, Thomson relates a story about how a pitch he initially thought successful ultimately failed.
Later, when reflecting on why his proposal – which had a strong business case – fell flat, he realises that even the best, most foolproof ideas can fail under the weight of conflicting agendas.
The experience taught him that what is truly important is not to be right, but to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes, build strong and enduring relationships, and stay true to your values.
These measures of success often require compromise, or even walking away from your position, no matter how correct.
“Small compromises,” says Thomson, often lead “to an enduring and tremendously beneficial partnership for both parties”.
“Great leaders have the humility to admit a mistake and have insatiable curiosity,” says Thomson.
“They enjoy when other people come along with a new perspective that is different from theirs.”
The problem with always being right
Always speaking first in meetings, criticising others’ points of view and displaying defensiveness to feedback are typical behaviours exhibited by people who believe they are always right.
“You might notice a lot of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in their language”, rather than the more collaborative “‘we’ and ‘our,’” observes Anna Marshall, author and director of People Mastery.
An overpowering desire to be right limits diversity of thought and kills innovation.
“If you think you have all the answers, then you don’t actively go and seek out other perspectives,” says Marshall. “You get a sample of one, which is just your opinion and no one else’s.”
In this scenario, says Thomson, talent development falls by the wayside.
“Good leaders need to develop unlocked potential,” he says. However, “if you’re always right, you’re never going to provide freedom or autonomy for those around you to develop”.
When a leader constantly shuts down the people around them, a common response is to stop contributing. “Nobody challenges you,” says Thomson. Team members avoid initiating discussion or offering new ideas “because they lose every time. People get resigned to inertia.”
In this tense environment, relationships also suffer. Someone who is uninterested in others’ opinions considers “being right or wrong as a one-off transaction,” says Thomson.
When relationships are viewed this way – where there is a winner and a loser in each interaction – there is an absence of trust and, consequently, “you’re never going to get breakthrough results”.
Addressing the behaviour in others
Marshall advises being strategic in the way you broach the subject with someone who needs to be right in every situation.
“When you’ve got someone who thinks they are always right, it’s going to be hard to give them feedback in a way that they will take well,” Marshall says, recommending an “I statement” structure.
“What you are saying is how what’s happening is impacting on you …[and] how that’s making you feel”, which is less likely to evoke a defensive or hostile reaction.”
Marshall offers an example: “When I don’t get a chance to air my views, I feel undervalued. What I’d like is a chance to share my opinion on the subject.”
When the problem is you
Recognising this trait in yourself requires a high level of self-awareness borne from honest self-reflection.
Ask yourself, “When do I get the best results?”, advises Thomson. Reflect on whether you have had any breakthrough or transformational ideas, the depth of your relationships and whether your networks have grown.
Ask, “Have I developed my team and those around me?”, “Are they flourishing?”, “Are they being promoted?”.
A reluctance to admit fault is another red flag, and one that limits growth. Owning up to a mistake is a learning opportunity that “makes your ideas, concepts and thoughts so much better”, says Thomson.
To address this tendency in yourself, identify circumstances that trigger the offending behaviour and replace old habits with new ones.
“An example might be, ‘When I’m in a team meeting, instead of putting my opinion forward first…I will sit back and ask two other people for their opinion first’,” offers Marshall.
Another strategy Marshall proposes is to make it a habit to proactively seek alternative views. Regularly ask your team, “What’s wrong with my idea? Who thinks differently about it, or what’s an opposing viewpoint?”
Set yourself stretch projects to push through the limits of your knowledge, experience or capability into territory where you don’t have all the answers. Thomson calls this the “30 per cent rule”, where it is impossible to achieve an objective based on your current thinking or beliefs.
“It forces you to look externally and to get someone else’s views, which are different to your own,” he says.