The Tyranny of Being Right

It’s such an easy thing to fall into: the desire, the need, to be right. It creates huge divides between us, drives us to say and do things that cause others to either disengage or retaliate. Later, we may console ourselves with the satisfaction of winning but it’s pretty much a cold dinner left on a table that’s been deserted by friends. And if the friends are important and powerful enough, it can even turn out to be more like a last supper.

The alternative is being wrong, of course, and that’s where I believe the problem lies. After all, if I am wrong, it can become a chink in the armor of my self-confidence and self-trust, and in the self-perceived, self-protected perfection of my reputation. One chink leads to another, you know, so that the possibility is all the armor might fall away and I’ll have to just stand there, both vulnerable and alone.

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That’s part of the irony of being right. You can be right and alone, or wrong and alone, and given that choice, who wouldn’t rather be right? Moreover, not being right can subject you to an ongoing loss of control — if you are not right, someone else must be — so along with being alone, you may have to live with some form of domination, also not good.

A few years ago, I watched a vice president lose his job for being right. He was certain his boss had the wrong approaches to the problems it was the VP’s job to resolve. The VP was convinced that the best ideas were the product of informed argument and so he kept arguing, trying to be right, rather than act. He didn’t particularly like or seek out middle ground. He was often somewhat reluctant to try new approaches. For him, compromise frequently seemed a slippery slope — best not to go there. He was “right,” alright, and even knowing his job was in jeopardy, he really couldn’t stop himself from the argument. And pretty soon he was gone.

It’s hard when it seems like a matter of principle that’s at stake. It can be hard when we are just so sure we know what’s going on, what the best solution is, or the truth about the motives and intentions of another person. Our rightness becomes our righteousness: our ears clog up, our mental models become self-sealing, and we stop asking questions — except leading questions to trip up an opponent. In effect, the process of being right is about becoming hermetically sealed in a safe, self-congratulatory, but essentially airless container.

This is not to say there aren’t times when standing on principle is the right thing to do. I’m simply pointing out the balancing act, and the nature of how important our positions are to one another and to ourselves. Visit the comments section on any internet article about a controversial issue — you pick. Everybody arguing their point isn’t solving the problem, is it? People don’t seem to be commenting in order to learn something — they comment to reinforce their views and biases, to defend themselves and their ideas, sometimes in highly offensive ways. It’s often just useless venting, perhaps another form of what Ed Batista has called “adult thumb sucking.”

There are lots of “other people” who have this problem, of course, and so we seldom think we’ve got the worst case of the virus. Even in this we are right — we think we don’t we need to do anything about it in ourselves, at least not right now, and we’re right about that, too. Which is, of course, a real problem, isn’t it, that we’re almost never wrong?

The only thing that helps is getting out from under the tyranny of our own righteousness, out of the shadows that hide our own plain fears — learning to be okay with that very human ground where being “wrong” is exactly one of our best strengths and maybe the most risky, vulnerable right thing we can ever be.

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5 Comments

  • Great post, Dan. I’m reminded of a client who wrestled with a version of this issue and concluded, “Even when I’m right, I don’t have to be right RIGHT NOW.”

    He realized that by pressing his points so aggressively he was damaging relationships and leaving people less open to his influence–a textbook example of winning battles while losing the war.

    He was always going to be direct and assertive–appropriately so–and at the same time he found that he made more progress toward his goals by being more deliberate about when to push hard and when to dial it down.

  • The way I look at it the “rightness” depends on the question. Normally as we live the decisions we make don’t really address only 1 question. There is the question of what will be the least disruptive action. There is the question of if it is fair to change the rules for an employee in mid stream. There is the question of what should you spend your time on. There is the question of what you should do to help yourself. Etc. You can be “right” on 1 question and that same action can be “wrong” or problematic or dangerous for another question.

    Often standing for principle may be taken as doing the “right” thing. Lets even say it is right when asking what is in the interests of the company. But it is certainly common that doing so is the wrong thing for your career (or any of a number of other way of considering what to do).

  • Ed — Thank you for dropping by and your great coaching story. There are a million ways in which we can inadvertently create distance rather than influence. It’s wonderful that your client saw how he was contributing to the problem and found a way to modify his behavior situationally. I suspect that your story is an iceberg in the sense that there is a lot beneath the surface! Kudos to him — and to you. Many best wishes.

  • […] The Tiranny of Being Right Written by: Dan Oestreich […]

  • John — Great comment, thank you! Yes, the world is more complex and situations often involve many competing “right” answers. My point is that sometimes people get locked up into their right points in a patterned way. This may be a bad habit or a matter of temperament, but it can be lethal when a leader must be right all the time.

    Thanks for your kind mention of this post at Five Blogs and sorry your comment got lost. Indeed, it went to the spam file — and that should not happen again. Many best wishes, John.

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