The Best Leaders are OK with Being Wrong

Kevin P. Dincher

For 15 years, I’ve kept a book called The Joy of Being Wrong on my office shelf. It is a work of theological anthropology, but that is beside the point. I keep it around because of the title. Anyone who knows me well knows that I really like being right—and I mean I really like being right—and I keep The Joy of Being Wrong around because the title reminds me that there are more important things than always being right.

Taking pleasure in being right is a universal human trait. I suspect humans became hard-wired to feel good about being right when being wrong meant becoming dinner for a saber-toothed cat. Of course, success does require that we be right more often than they are wrong. As a result, leaders devote a great deal of energy to making sure they are right, and they become quite good at fighting for their own point of view. However, as organizational anthropologist Judith E. Glaser explains in Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results, when people argue and win, their brains are flooded with adrenaline and dopamine. This makes them feel good, dominant, and even invincible. It feels great to be right, and the human brain begins to crave the positive feelings generated by being right. People essentially become addicted to being right.

Addictive behavior, however, interferes with productive sharing of information and ideas, stymies creativity, and damages work relationships.

We Can’t Both be Right

Leaders who are addicted to being right tend not to give dissenting voices a fair hearing and will cut off discussion prematurely. Often, however, an extended discussion is exactly what is necessary to bring out new perspectives, to recognize additional complexity, or to improve on an idea or a plan.

Such discussions, however, can only happen when leaders can entertain the possibility that they might not be completely right and someone else could be. When leaders know that they don’t have it all wrapped up in cellophane they work to become better listeners. Someone else might have the missing piece or even a better idea altogether. Leaders who are willing to risk being wrong encourage discussions that that include opposing ideas knowing that better decisions can be reached.

I Thought I was Wrong Once, but I was Mistaken

Leaders become very good at fighting for their own point of view and ideas. When they are getting high off the feeling of being right, however, they keep arguing until others are browbeaten into agreeing that they are right. Bullied into submission, people disengage. They shut up, hide behind group consensus, or simply agree to make the pain stop. These bullying bosses are usually unaware of the inhibiting impact they have on their people and see acquiescence as further evidence that they are right.

However, leaders need their people to stay engaged so they do their best work and develop their most creative ideas. Leaders who are willing to risk being wrong are more apt to build collaborative relationships instead of browbeating people into submission.

Mistakes were Made, but Not by Me

When things do fall apart, as they inevitably will from time to time, it is common enough to see leaders dodge responsibility and put great effort into covering up and rationalization. Just think of the many political scandals of the past few years. Those cover-ups seem like bungled attempts at PR and poor crisis management. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, however, social psychologists Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson explain that our brains are hard-wired for self-justification. Being right makes people feel good about themselves; being wrong does the opposite. In order to calm the negative feelings that arise from being wrong, people cover up, rationalize, and lie—even to themselves.

People who are addicted to being right create fictions that they actually believe themselves in order to restore their belief in their own goodness, morality and rightness. Consequently, there is no need for them to change their thinking or behavior since they have convinced themselves they were actually right all along. The best leaders, however, are those who deal honestly with their mistakes when they make them, learn from those mistakes and then make changes. Moreover, being honest when we are wrong has a powerful benefit: it teaches people that they can trust us to tell them the truth—even when we are not the hero of the story. People know when their leaders are covering their own tracks, and they lose respect, confidence and trust in those leaders who do.

Among all the attributes of the great leaders discussed in blogs, discussion groups and articles, one stands out: they are all highly trusted. Having a compelling vision, an unshakable strategy, innovative insight and a skilled team won’t get you very far if people do not trust you. To earn that trust, you will have to admit that you can be wrong sometimes and be honest about it when you are.

Kevin P Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.  Kevin currently provide services to non-profit organizations through a partnership with Professionals in Philanthropy.

LinkedIn: Kevin P. Dincher

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