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What is Lost in Being Right?

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From a very young age, we are taught how important it is to be right. When handling conflict, criticism, or collaboration, the consensus rewards those who predict the future, understand the situation the best, or have the best plan. Disagreements can be heated. Feelings can be hurt, reputations damaged, workplace cultures disrupted and sometimes even job loss can be a result. The ultimate redeemer in any of these situations, despite the results, is to be right.

Stories are written around the very premise of being right. Despite all the doubters, the plucky protagonist shows everyone in the end that they remained steadfast and everyone else was wrong. The good guys are vindicated. The bad guys get their comeuppance. This narrative is written into the very fabric of our culture. Ultimately, it matters less how you look on the other side of a conflict than it does if you are right or wrong. In the workplace, this idea can be incredibly damaging.

Failure is not an accurate measure of success. If you’re not being criticized, coached, or disagreed with, you’re just doing what’s required. As hard as it is to receive negative feedback, disregarding it, closing ranks, and carrying on with business as usual can be incredibly damaging. Why? Because being open to the possibility of being wrong allows freedom that being right does not.

Obviously, not all criticism is correct and everyone else is not always right. If that were true we should probably explore alternate careers. The important thing is: Do we have the healthy mindset necessary to explore issues thoroughly without our ego involved? How are we so sure the criticism is wrong? More importantly, if it weren’t wrong, would exploring some of the possible improvements make our teams stronger or us better individuals at our jobs? A growth mindset makes it so all criticism we receive makes us better, regardless of accuracy.

I once led a team that pushed a change into the production environment based on due diligence and documented stakeholder sign-off. Later, the stakeholder changed their minds and called the change a mistake. The team was adamant that they were not at fault and that the stakeholder was avoiding responsibility. As a leader I was frustrated. A paying customer is always right, and there was nothing we could do to change that narrative. What we did have a choice about was what we were going to do about that “mistake”. We could say they were wrong, and that we did the right thing, and would continue to do the right thing. This only afforded us one course of action: to continue down the righteous path that we had started. Alternatively, we could stop looking at blame and focus on how the issue could have been avoided. Could we have changed our communication methods? Could we have shown the stakeholders more designs or engaged in more collaborative demos of the software in a lower environment? Being right afforded us one option. Being wrong afforded us a multitude.

The stakes grow exponentially when the hierarchy of leadership enters the picture. Imposter syndrome is real. It’s hard enough for leaders to believe in themselves, let alone remain confident through criticism and feedback from their direct reports and peers. Appearing confident and capable has been the most important mark of a good leader throughout history. But when a number of people, projects, and clients are depending on you, being wrong without learning from your mistakes is vastly more costly. Being able to see mistakes made by you or your team and to learn from them becomes an extremely important endeavor. Giving and receiving feedback in a modern healthy culture is vital. Being open, vulnerable, and transparent is the bravest, most difficult yet most effective way to lead in a healthy agile culture.

In an evolved agile workplace where teams are self-organizing, collaboration and evolution are vital. Being on the correct end of a conflict is less important. The success of the team outweighs the success of the individual and good leadership will reward individuals with team success over individual accomplishment every time. Although individual concern is vital and should be explored in a safe, supportive environment, the good of the team ultimately outweighs personal scores. A successful project is more important than a successful team member. More importantly than that, an individual perspective is less powerful and less convincing than a collaborative team perspective. Clients are curious about individual concerns. They are reassured and empowered by collaborative team decisions.

Perspective is objective. Even people who work together every day will see the same situations differently. Good, evolved agile teams come from different backgrounds and perspectives, have different agendas, and have different ideas about what ultimately defines success. Healthy agile teams challenge one another. When something isn’t good enough, they are transparent and hold one another accountable. Championing your teammates is important. Equally important, however, is trusting and supporting one another enough to stand behind the team even when the team doesn’t necessarily reflect personal goals. The same can be said for outside criticism or feedback. When an alternative perspective is presented, the team can reject the idea, and continue down the path they are on; or they can explore a multitude of alternatives.

Despite the natural inclination to hold on to being right, this only affords you a single option: the current path. Being wrong, on the other hand, opens up a world of possibilities.

Originally published on Medium.


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