What’s Right About Being Wrong, Written by Frank Ferrante

Two recent coaching surveys* reveal similar trends – more senior managers want coaching and more of them want the coaching to focus on how to deal with conflict. Presumably, their goal is how to prevail in conflict situations, or at least create a more persuasive case for their side; in other words, how to be right.

Now comes a book that challenges the virtues of being right: “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz, is on the required reading list for incoming freshman at Harvard University. Given that those accepted by this venerable institution have virtually made a career of being right, and that the selection committee makes a practice of selecting this elite 5% based on a pattern of things done right, why this book? Is this one of those “read this book because it’s good for your over-inflated sense of self, but don’t put it into practice because we all know that nothing succeeds like always being right.”

Well, not so fast; maybe Harvard, the author, and our executives wanting more coaching, are onto something here.

Schulz makes the point that there is nothing terribly wrong about being wrong and a lot wrong about thinking you’re right all the time. Thinking you are right, and having the expectation that you are always right, results in “error blindness” – remember, there were a lot of “right” people in charge on Wall Street in the Fall of 2008.

“We go through life assuming we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything” Schulz states. Now, add a dose of position and power in a large organization, and you have this sentiment on steroids!

This assumption undermines the reality we face, which is far different, far more complex and multi-faceted than our immediate impression reveals, and far less capable of easy categorization than our facile assumption of rightness would have us believe.

All scientific progress bears witness to this: “Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our more honorable qualities; empathy, optimism, imagination…Thanks to errors, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

The presumption of certitude kills curiosity, easy answers rob us of the possibilities created by questions, and there are black swans.

Yet there is a way out – not to abandon being right, but to be aware of its limitations, and not to condemn being wrong, but to cultivate its opportunities.

Rather than the obsession of being right, Schulz recommends that we minimize mistakes by:

 

  • fostering the ability to listen to each other and the freedom to speak our minds
  • creating open and transparent environments instead of cultures of secrecy and concealment
  • permitting and encouraging everyone, not just a powerful inner circle, to speak up when they see the potential for error

 

And, I would add, to embrace doubt, welcome vulnerability, enlist all in seeking solutions and recognize that the power of leadership lies less in the right answers and more in the right questions – that it’s not about ego, it’s about results, and sometimes being wrong initially is the best way to eventually be right.

So, the next time an executive requests coaching on conflict resolution, collectively probe the value of “being wrong” first and work backwards toward how to truly be right.

 Research

  1.  *2013 Executive Coaching Survey, Stanford Graduate School of Business. The Executive Coach Survey, Evidence & Interaction, Ninth Annual Report, 2014 Sherpa Coaching.