Being ‘Right’ Doesn’t Make You Right

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Nov 30, 2018

Thinking you are right is a blind spot; not just for intellectuals, but for anyone who places being right above being sensitive to his or her surroundings. Allowing others to be right, even when you believe there is a better way, isn’t a weakness. It displays strength of character. It’s not about being right; it’s about when to be right.

Being right can come at a cost, and it’s amazing how many business schools overlook this basic fact. Years ago, when I took business classes at the University of Maryland, I learned the principles of economics, accounting, statistics, and so much more. However, one thing I wasn’t taught was the real-world politics of business. Without a teacher, I was left to my own instincts — and to those of my father.

My father’s instincts served him well as a Marine, and they served him well as a salesman. He never had to deal with corporate politics because he was a damn good salesman. When you work for an organization that’s driven by sales and outsell those around you, as he did, the standard rules don’t apply.

Being mentored by my father, I took pride in being known as the guy who would not be silent when he knew he was right. During my years in sales at Xerox Corporation, I welcomed the “price” that came with being right, because I knew it took courage to do so. I battled management and coworkers every time I believed I was right. I’ll admit that a part of me, deep down, enjoyed these battles. I wore my beliefs like a badge of honor, one that I displayed with enormous satisfaction. I even threw in my patented “They’re going to put it on my tombstone” mantra from time to time.

But I was clearly wrong.

There’s a time, a place and a way to be right

Xerox put up with me because I worked hard and consistently exceeded expectations, but I was operating under an uneasy truce with those around me. I became disenchanted with the tension that “being right” created in others, so I left Xerox to become an entrepreneur.

I could give a number of reasons for why I left Xerox, but the truth is: I left so I could be right. I wasn’t courageous, and I wasn’t right. I was lucky. If I could jump into the Wayback Machine and sit down with a young, starry-eyed Rob Jolles who was hell-bent on being right, I’d tell him a few things:

  • I’d tell him not to confuse the courage that comes with standing up for your beliefs with the proper time and place to take that stand.
  • I’d tell him not to confuse the pride of ownership, especially ownership of ideas or beliefs, with the importance of being a contributing team player who can support the ideas of others.
  • I’d tell him not to confuse supporting the second-best idea with selling out.
  • I’d tell him to stop focusing on what’s written on his tombstone and instead focus on having the courage to be wrong.

You want to be a team player

When you work for a company or are part of a team, you want to be a team player. You want people to know you can support others’ ideas and that you understand there is a time, place, and way to be right. If, in the past, you’ve alienated others with your need to be right, you can now work in the present to ensure that being right doesn’t come at the cost of being an asset to your company or team.

This doesn’t mean you should never disagree. Forgoing the need to be right doesn’t mean you should shelve information that’s critical for decision-making. It always amazes me how misunderstood the simple act of disagreeing can be. Disagreements are a healthy part of any relationship, whether it’s a business or personal one. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” Avoiding disagreement is simply not an option.

One of the reasons why disagreement fails is because it’s trickier than it appears, and we are rarely, if ever, taught how to disagree constructively. We are left with a paradox: without disagreement we cannot progress, and with it we potentially place ourselves in danger. So, let’s tease this out by looking at four general areas to focus on when disagreeing: the words, the sound, the face, and the timing.

Four areas

The words — Words matter, particularly during a disagreement. In a corporate environment, it’s often difficult to raise your hand and flatly disagree. And it’s rare to find a group that gets along so well that no one cares if you disagree in public. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree in front of our teams, but it does mean we have to find better words. I’ve always been a fan of what I call a support-build process, in which you support one person’s idea while clearing the way for disagreement by allowing others to build on it. It plays out something like this:

Person A: “I propose we start charging for internal project support.”

Person B:

Support: “I think finding a revenue source is an excellent idea…”

Build: “…how about we look at all available avenues to make sure we can generate revenue and retain the support we need from our other departments?”

The sound — There’s nothing worse than hearing someone disagree with well-thought-out words that just don’t sound genuine. Using words that aren’t “in tune” is a missed opportunity that can sow distrust. I firmly believe we are quite capable of having the sounds we make — our tone and cadence — line up with the words we use and the message we want to get across. When you genuinely believe what you are saying, your tune will sound just fine and you’ll be more likely to be believed by others.

The face — Your facial expressions convey the raw emotion behind your message, more so than your words, tune, or other nonverbal cues will communicate. Whether it works for or against you, your face is a window to your sincerity. Much like getting our words and tune in sync, our words should line up with our facial expressions as well. That fake smile — or, as my Egyptian friends would call it, that “yellow” smile — isn’t fooling anyone. Unless you want a confrontation, reach peace with whatever is bothering you, and your face will not betray your words.

The timing — There will always be those colleagues, usually in positions of power, who couldn’t care less what you have to say if it isn’t said at the right time. There is a time and a place to disagree, and knowing when the timing is right is a definite strength. Who really thinks that taking on a dominant manager in front of the team, or taking on a friend in front of your peers, is appropriate timing and gives you the best chance for success?

It’s never too late to learn when and how to be right, and when and how to disagree. Learning these simple process behaviors can be the difference between a constructive relationship and one fraught with dysfunction.

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