Co-Founder & CEO of Intrinio a disruptive and affordable financial data platform, programmer and DaaS pioneer.
Kathryn Schuls, author of Being Wrong, calls people’s inability to say they’re wrong a “startling deficiency” of society. She isn’t wrong — unfortunately. The need to be right is so intrinsic for humanity that we seek it out at any cost. We loathe colleagues who won’t admit it, but we often can’t either. Being wrong feels bad, and I would know. I’ve made the wrong hires, taken products in the wrong direction and used the wrong management techniques.
Being wrong is a blessing in disguise, and it’s particularly transformative for those in positions of power: CEOs, founders and managers. You learn something new when you are wrong, and acknowledging it gives you a leg up on your egotistic peers. Admitting it out loud gets you extra credit. Your direct reports and stakeholders won’t expect it, but their respect will increase with each act of humility.
In this article, I’ll outline why needing to be right is instinctual, why it’s bad for us and techniques to embrace being wrong.
Our Instinct Is To Need To Be Right
Evolution has designed us to be in control. Society has told us to be perfect, and our peers have taught us to feel shameful and inadequate when we aren’t. It takes hard work to unwire a lifetime of rightness.
The wires are tangled up in what psychologists call confirmation bias. According to an article by Raymond S. Nickerson, confirmation bias is “the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.” We are intentional about arriving at rightness.
The tragedy lies in the fact that we’d rather operate blindly with the wrong answers than search for our humility and admit we are wrong. Being wrong does not come naturally — but then again, most good things don’t come easy.
Counterintuitively, It’s Terrible For Us
When we are right, we merely confirm what we already thought we knew; we don’t grow or get any smarter. Each time you triumph in your rightness, you miss an opportunity to evolve. Each time you embrace your wrongness, you earn knowledge. Being wrong moves you forward; being right keeps you at a standstill.
The marginal inch you move forward when you are wrong is often imperceptible in the moment. It falls under the purview of incremental growth: small gains that add up to major improvements over time. This is how I taught myself to program. Inch by inch, I’d write code that didn’t work and then find out why. Eventually I built a website. Finding the patience for incremental growth is hard enough; it can be downright painful when it’s at the hands of someone else.
This is what psychologists call ego. There are many interpretations, but there’s an argument to be made that a strong ego puts you in danger of confirmation bias.
Techniques To Embrace Wrongness
Being wrong creates cognitive dissonance. This is the negative feeling you have when your behavior and your beliefs don’t line up. Keeping your beliefs and behaviors lined up is how you protect your ego, but changing your beliefs about your behavior is how you evolve. There are multiple ways to get better at being wrong, but understanding this concept and having the guts to change your behavior is the best place to start.
First, try hiring people who are much smarter than you. This has worked well for me, and it creates a high probability of being wrong on a regular basis. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice.
Next, always attempt to disconfirm a strongly held belief before tooting your horn. Try asking for feedback from your team. This shows humility, arms you with more information and helps you prepare for wrongness.
Practicing servant leadership is also a great way to disassociate from the need to be right, placing emphasis on the empowerment of your employees and your trust in their decisions.
Lastly, when making major decisions with your leadership team, try Amazon’s approach. Attendees spend the first 30 minutes of the meeting reading a prepared memo and taking notes. This sets the stage for a powerful discussion and an expeditious meeting. It also forces you to quantify a clear message, including a devil’s advocate approach to your potential decision.
Vernon Smith captured my attention recently in a beautifully crafted article, stating that “being wrong is what teaches us all the things we didn’t even know we could know.” What lies on the other end of this painful exercise is the opening of your world into new realities and unshakable growth. Go forth and screw up; I promise it’ll be good for you.