It Doesn’t Matter if You’re Right

If you’ve ever noticed that you have trouble bringing people along in the exact moments when you feel most confident about your direction, you may be more focused on the value of being right over than the value of getting the outcome that you want. How does that happen?

We almost never question our own thoughts. We tend to believe them and feel that we should take action on them. Buddhist tradition is perhaps best known for calling these tendencies into question, as teachers like Tsoknyi Rinpoche remind us that our thoughts are “real but not true”. This insight is frequently called upon to help people make sense of experiences like anxiety, but it has useful application in leadership.

The Challenge for Leaders

Leaders face a sort of cognitive conundrum. On one hand, it is often the intuition (you might call it experience that leads to unconscious pattern recognition, expertise, etc.) we have developed that put us in our leadership roles in the first place, and we benefit from leaning into that intuition and leveraging it as we navigate the inevitable complexities of leading people through anything—particularly the ambiguity of change. On the other hand, the more we learn, the more we take our learning for granted. We are more apt to forget the experience of being a novice, to assume others know what we know, and to expect that those who do not know what we know will trust and follow what we have to say by virtue of our leadership role, our reputation, or our relationship with them.

As leaders, we are often wrong about all of these things. The challenge we face is that the only way to discover this error is to proactively and purposefully shift from telling to listening. We have to be curious, meaning we have to be more committed to learning than to being right (see #2 in The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership). That seems simple enough, even for those of us whose “learner” or “communicator” skills fall at the very bottom of their Strengths Finder analysis, but it may be one of the most challenging feats of good leadership. When things get hard—stakes are high, emotions are hot, interpersonal relationships are strained—we tend to hold on to our beliefs more tightly rather than loosen our grip and allow the question of whether there is a better way to emerge. Our task is to learn to do the opposite.

Sometimes our expertise leads us astray. Not because we misread a situation, but because we read it so clearly that the next right thing is obvious to us. As leaders, we also often feel a deep sense of ownership and responsibility for charting a course of action and pursuing it, no matter what is required to do so. That “obviousness” and related passion lead us to ever more tenaciously hold onto our beliefs, and to deliver our messaging in a way that expects others to come unquestioningly along on our chosen path rather than inviting them to collaborate on the best way forward.

In reality, people will rarely come along if they feel forced out of the opportunity to apply their own skill or expertise. They are also unlikely to push back in direct or explicit ways. Instead, they’ll be inclined to defensiveness and resistance. This reaction is sometimes (perhaps even often!) a surprise to those who experience it because it isn’t necessarily logical. Even if they might ultimately agree with you, they can confuse their reaction to your delivery with their reaction to your content. You’ve missed an opportunity for sure, but you have also missed a chance to connect with people more fundamentally.

Three Strategies to Bring Your Team Along

I’ve found three strategies that help me navigate these moments in my own leadership, and support other leaders when I can see them careening down similar paths.

1. Invest in trust with your team before you need it.

This is a persistent theme in Outside Angle’s blog for a reason; nothing hard gets done until a team trusts each other. Cultivate trust in everything you do, and think of it like the emotional bank account. Make regular deposits so that you have the capital for withdrawals when you need it.

2. Cultivate a process to balance emotional action.

When emotions run high, it’s nearly impossible to shift gears and start a new way of thinking and operating as a team. Instead, develop a standard process for disrupting the toxic cocktail of emotion and ego that comes with strong intuition. Build this for yourself as a leader (e.g., key questions you ask yourself before taking action, key people you ask for feedback, etc.) or, better yet, build it together with your team and encourage anyone to pull the Andon cord if they see red flags.

3. Constantly return to your vision.

Recall what you’re trying to accomplish. Take the time to remind yourself what success looks like. How is the proposed action helping you get there? What will happen if your team doesn’t take the action you think it should? Why might they push back on your intended action? If you have done the work to establish a clear vision at the outset of the work, you should always appeal to it to both check your own leadership and to bring your team into the strategy for forward progress.

None of us like to discover that we have conflated our ego with our work, but believing that our feelings about what is true, what is best, and what is right equals the foregone conclusion that everyone should do what we say is a good sign that we’ve lost touch with the “leading” part of our jobs. If you want to accomplish transformational change, you can’t do it alone. So build the practices you need to make sure the people who will help make that change happen are truly collaborating with each other–and with you.