What if I were wrong?

humble pie

I have a laminated note pinned to my bulletin board that says, “Be humble, you could be wrong.” I struggle with this a bit…a lot. While I will admit when I realize I’m wrong, my first impulse is to, well, assume that I’m right. That I alone have perceived the situation accurately or that my solution is the clearly the best one. You’ll have to argue with me for a bit before I realize I’m wrong because I’m so sure I’m right. Then I’ll open up, maybe even apologize. I am really working on this because it causes problems.

It’s not that being wrong is bad. Mistakes happen, and we learn from them and do better next time. But setting your default to thinking that you are right and others are wrong has the potential to create deeper issues. What if people don’t bother arguing with me? What if I my know-it-all demeanor frustrates people to the point that they don’t even want to engage with me? What if I were wrong and didn’t know it and kept making the same mistake? What if I miss out on countless opportunities to learn and grow?

Over-confidence can damage interpersonal relationships. Think about your tone, body language, and words when you disagree with someone. Are you being condescending without even being aware? Sarcastic or flippant? I practically have a degree in this. But it’s a cheap shot and a short cut. I would rather say, “That doesn’t make sense!” in a blustery fashion rather than take the time to think a bit harder and choose my words more carefully: “I understand when you say x, but I’m not sure I agree that x leads to y. In my experience, x only leads to y only when z. Let’s consider…” It’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it. As Maya Angelou said, people may forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Being too attached to your own position can also cut you off from valuable information and lead to less than ideal solutions. I can’t think of a single awesome thing that I have done that was generated by my brain power alone. We really are better together. Not to mention, when you involve people, you don’t just generate more and better ideas, you also get buy-in, which is critical for actually implementing ideas. Maybe my idea is “the best” and doesn’t need fine-tuning. But if I bully it to the fore and annoy people in the process, are they going to have my back when inevitable challenges arise? People are more likely to get behind ideas that they felt like they helped create.

The fact of the matter is that most of us don’t create value alone, but with others. Research shows that the highest-performing teams are those with the least amount of interpersonal friction and the most robust debate about ideas. This isn’t possible if you are blowing off people’s ideas because you like yours better while simultaneously alienating people. If you are going to be of value, you have to be able to see others’ value.

Cultivating greater humility may be one of my personal development goals, but if you are a leader or a manager, I hope your ears are burning right now. We talked recently how people often rise through the ranks of organizations based on their projected confidence, not necessarily their competence. So chances are that like me, you are a know-it-all too. This is a problem, because the broader your influence in an organization, the more important it is to be open to others’ ideas. You are no longer creating value alone but harvesting the combined contributions of others. Further, if you are on a leadership team full of people like yourself, no one is listening to each other or the people below them. Aggregate arrogance leads to stagnation, followed by a slow dive into diminished results.

So go ahead and have a big ole piece of that humble pie. It’s actually pretty tasty.

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