The Cost of Being Right
I’ve had a dangerous past of being right. Through high school, I was the kid who corrected the teachers, told her peers how they should conduct their business, and also the girl everyone wanted to copy answers from. These behaviors followed me into college where I obtained 2 degrees, with a 4.0 GPA.
I don’t take any pride in any of this, because even though there was some measurement that established my ability to be right, I’m not entirely sure it held any meaningful value. I certainly didn’t make friends, my teachers still remind me on facebook what a royal pain in their ass I was, and I hide my 4.0 GPA from everyone.
Recently, a friend who I’ve known to be this pillar of strength, was at the peak of their frustration when they said —
“I’m tired of being wrong. There really is no reason for me to continue to try my best when my best is rejected by those who are always more right.”
I began to wonder how often I violated the rule that being right isn’t always the right thing to be. I questioned, how many times have I said something that was right, but rather thoughtless in the value it delivered? Or worse yet, how many times did being right actually add value, but my delivery was inappropriate?
Examples that came to mind are:
- Criticizing a project in a condescending manner, such as, “It should have been done this way” or “X was a terrible decision” after the project is done, and even worse, while not being a contributor.
- Finding the one thing wrong in the sea of 100 things that were done right.
- Looking for something to be wrong, more often than right.
- Acting as a mentor vs a coach, meaning, giving advice on how to do something versus guiding and empowering a person to find the answer within themself.
- Language and grammar correcting.
- Asking someone to correct something when I’ve could have done it, and nobody would have been the wiser.
- Arguing a subjective topic to the death, using the most trivial points to add weight to a case.
- Not letting someone potentially fail in order to let them learn things on their own.
You might read that list and acknowledge that you’ve done some of these things, and you may even believe most of it is harmless. Harmless is relative. It is extremely difficult to measure how these behaviors affect a team or individual, but in my experience, it can.
Here are some considerations —
- Openly stating how a project should have been built can throw shade at individuals who did the best they knew how to with the resourcing, requirements, and time budgets given to them at the time. Chances are that they know how they would have done it differently, and what they really need is help and not a band of angry villagers explaining how some tool choice has violated their great grandchild’s first born.
- Approaching everything with a goal, intentional or not, to find something wrong is mind numbing to contributors. What if the goal should be to find what is right? What if letting something be wrong is worth more than the eye roll or annoyed feeling you are creating? Is that accidental typo in a slack conversation really worth pinging the person about or just correcting in a public channel? I mean, maybe it is — if it changes the meaning of the sentence…sure.
- Arguing the level of rightness to the death regardless if there is also other acceptable answers is exhausting to those that would rather avoid conflict. It can lead to an issue were only one voice is dominating every decision, every meeting, while others sit silently knowing the consequence of speaking up.
- Knowing or thinking what the right answer is but letting others figure it out in their own way is a growth opportunity, provided that the cost/benefit ratio is in the right proportion should a plan fail. If we let people make mistakes, they often won’t repeat them, they will feel like they can make mistakes, which can drive innovation and creativity. In many cases, there isn’t a total failure versus a temporary diversion. Regardless, it is impossible to prevent failure, so it is more important to allow people to fail so they can learn how to recover from it and actually plan for it as a part of their critical thinking process.
The important thing to understand is that there is not a single hard rule. It becomes a paradox to say that we want the best outcome, but aren’t allowed to correct what is wrong; the key is understanding the value of being right in a particular context. My examples list is just as much wrong as it is right, because context changes everything.
Working with others is an art form where you have to critically think through your actions, and resist your impulses to indulge in your pride and intellectual prowess. If you don’t, you become a contributing factor to how my friend feels. That is the cost of being right — you risk making others never feel right.