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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