Being right

Posted by Doc
Feb 09 2009

I’ve touched on this before (and may again 😉 ), but wanted to give it some dedicated attention.

It comes up all the time, especially for those of us who have strong opinions, tend to be competitive, and focus on what we think is important to us: being right.

I’ll start with the simplest question: how important is it to be right?

I hear it all the time: “We had a fight because he/she wouldn’t accept that I was right!” Or “the meeting dragged on and on because they couldn’t see that I was right!”  Or “I’d rather be right and have my integrity!”

Sigh.

Why is “right” so important?

I say this as someone who was a pro at knowing that I was “right”.  And all of those years of fighting with people to try to get them to admit that I was right makes me very sad.

What’s the value of being “right”? Does it make the world better? Does it make a relationship better?  Does it make a conversation better? In what way does it make anything better?

Talking to my wife, which I do every day 😉 , I realized that every time I insisted on being right I drove a wedge between us. Why? Because if I was right, then she must have been wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong,… Needless to say, that didn’t make her feel good.

“You always have to be right! You’re always trying to make me feel stupid!” And I’m sure that she wasn’t the only one who felt that way. After all, I always had to be right with everyone else, too.

And you know what? I have to admit that she wasn’t altogether wrong. 😉

More recently, I began to realize what was really important: our relationship. Treating her with respect, listening to her, actually thinking about what she said (as opposed to “how can I prove that what she just said is wrong?”), and allowing for the possibility that there’s more than one “right.”

While I’m using my relationship and communications with my wife as the example for this, it’s really about all relationships. And I think you know that I believe that any time you have a conversation, that’s part of a relationship, no matter how brief it might be. This applies to personal relationships and professional relationships. It applies in business meetings and conversations over lunch.

Showing respect is more important than being right.

Maintaining a relationship is more important than being right.

Sharing and collaborating is more important than being right.

Allowing for multiple valid views of right is more important than having the one right.

In fact, I think that being right is pretty far down the list of important things.

7 Responses

  1. > Showing respect is more important than being right.
    > Maintaining a relationship is more important than being right.
    > Sharing and collaborating is more important than being right.
    > Allowing for multiple valid views of right is more important than having the one right.
    > In fact, I think that being right is pretty far down the list of important things.

    And yet none of these helped seven people at Dovetail keep their jobs and avoid wasting $1M of the company’s money.

    I agree that respect and relationships are indeed the most important thing, but I recognize that disrespect starts at the entitlements engendered by the single-faceted passive leadership culture that is often the staunch defender of the ideas you’ve put forward here.

    Disrespect often starts one step before we tend to recognize. I’m not saying that one disrespect deserves another, but once we’re on that slippery slope we shouldn’t be surprised when disrespect begets disrespect.

    In the Dovetail example, we had workers experimenting wildly because they felt entitled to do so. Many of their techniques and conclusions were wrong for the product and for production and productivity. These weren’t ‘possible’ wrongs, they were categorical wrongs.

    The first disrespect was in putting the production in jeopardy in pursuit of self-indulgence. This is where the disrespect begins. Subsequent disrespect (“Hey, you need to stay here tonight and clean up your mess”) may have been insensitive, but not entirely out of order or unprovoked.

    It’s nice to be someone who isn’t easily provoked. Well, I’ve heard that’s true in any case. But unlike the context with your wife, there are contexts where provocation begets a response, and sometimes exercising an organizational command structure is an appropriate response to provocation.

    If you’re not you’re wife’s commander in any stretch and in any context, then you’re likely in no position to respond decisively. But that one context description isn’t applicable to all contexts, and to pursue a cookie-cutter canonical context is a naive and possibly negligent approach to leadership.

    I agree wholeheartedly that respect and relationships are the most important thing, but we have to be sensitive and adaptable to the real exigencies and resulting structures of relationships.

    When a relationship is predicated on an authority structure, then being right is important because that’s what we’re entrusted with. As it is with parents and children it often is with project organizations and endeavors.

    Risk is the factor that dictates whether being right is more important or less important. With less risk in-play, being right isn’t as important.

    If being right means putting the relational ties between parties at risk, then we’ve got to look at the entitlements in play. Your wife has a different set and level of entitlements than your reports.

    Being right matters when you are in-fact right and there’s significant value at-risk by not responding to inappropriate provocations. The crux of the matter is deciding whether something is ‘inappropriate’ and the recognition of authority. When either of these is off-base, tension and anxiety might be unavoidable. It depends on what individuals and teams believe is the goal and their sense of the mission.

    My 2 cents.

    • No surprise (at least to you and me 🙂 ) that we agree about some things and disagree completely about others.

      When you say “When a relationship is predicated on an authority structure, then being right is important because that’s what we’re entrusted with.” I disagree. We’re not entrusted with being right – we’re entrusted with responsibility and accountability. Rightness doesn’t come into it. In fact, in almost all cases, rightness is contextual and subjective. I know that you believe you know what’s right. That doesn’t make it right – that makes it your conviction.

      And then there’s “Being right matters when you are in-fact right…” In fact? Where does that come from? When it comes to process and behavior, there is no “right” – there’s effective, there’s productive, there’s best choice,… But right? “in-fact right”? No.

      On the other hand, I love this and agree with it: “The crux of the matter is deciding whether something is ‘inappropriate’ and the recognition of authority. When either of these is off-base, tension and anxiety might be unavoidable. It depends on what individuals and teams believe is the goal and their sense of the mission.”

  2. > there’s effective, there’s productive, there’s best choice,

    That’s what I believe “right” to be. Subsequently, I’m also qualified and trusted to know best what “best” is in some areas of operation based on my evaluation of context.

  3. Steve Moyer says:

    While I understand the spirit of what you are saying I disagree with a fair portion of the wording.

    >Showing respect is more important than being right.
    >Maintaining a relationship is more important than being right.
    >Sharing and collaborating is more important than being right.

    I don’t think ranking these is useful. In my mind these things are independent. To rank them in this way implies that you should trade off social niceties for your strong convictions.

    You should not be disrespectful when you know you are right(whether or not it is a “relative” right).
    You should listen to other views and weigh their merits.
    You should pick your battles.
    You should offer an explanation of your assertion.
    You should agree to disagree.
    You should make the best of decisions you disagree with(sometimes the best IS to walk away from the relationship)

    You should not substitute showing respect for maintaining your integrity. I think you might agree that if we’re faced with that substitution as the only option we’ve already made a mistake.

  4. Olav Maassen says:

    Great post.

    Respect and understanding is important in a conversation. Understanding what your conversation partner is saying, means trying to find the intentions of what is said instead of just the words. It doesn’t mean you have to agree to what is said. It’s much easier to be understood when you understand your audience first.

    > Talking to my wife, which I do every day 😉 , I …

    I fall into the same trap if I don’t pay attention (which is also a lack of respect). Talking is done by partnering in the conversation and we should talk with each other instead of talking to each other. Talking to implies sending information whereas talking with implies collaboration and building on each other.

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