Lead as if you’re right; listen as if you’re not.
Our brain is wired for self-deception — we become immune to facts.
If you hold a position of power, it’s even worse. Leaders are more prone to suffer from ‘Confirmation Bias’ or ‘Error Blindness.” They filter the information that supports their beliefs. Or don’t realize their mistakes until it’s too late.
By being okay with being wrong, you keep your mind open. Rather than trying to win every argument, you pay attention to facts, not to what will help you defeat others.
Andy Grove, Intel’s co-founder, summarized this approach as the courage and confidence to act on what you know right now, along with the humility to course correct when new information comes along.
Read on to discover the keys reasons why you might think you are always right — and what happens when you lead as if you’re right and listen as if you’re not.
1. You think ‘being right’ gains you respect
Most leaders confuse infallibility with power — they feel pressured to have all the answers.
Our reputation is what we are known for; credibility is reputation impacting our ability to be believed. Being brave to admit you don’t know everything protects your reputation; trying to win every argument can risk your credibility.
To drive change requires integrating all types of ‘authority,’ not just the formal one. Great leaders tap truly listen to subject matter experts, those who are closer to the problem, bring an outsider perspective or have a strong influence within the team.
Do you confuse infallibility with authority?
You are not supposed to know it all. Wise leaders lead with questions, not perfect answers. They provoke and inspire their teams to discover new solutions. Also, leaders who acknowledge their limitations, are less likely to make mistakes that put their teams and organizations in danger.
As French philosopher Voltaire wrote, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
2. You always want to have the last cookie
“Infallibility battles” are pointless — everyone loses in the end.
A study at UC Berkeley broke students into groups of three, and one person was named the team leader. At some point, the researchers would bring in a plate of four cookies.
So, who would take the last cookie? We all know the social norm is not to do so.
But, as Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss explains, “The research showed consistently that the person in power would take that fourth cookie. They even tended to eat with their mouths open and leave more crumbs. And this is just in the laboratory. Imagine that you’re a CEO and everywhere you go you’re empowered, and everyone is kissing your ass. You can start to see why it’s so hard to be good.”
Infallibility battles are destructive — we want to defend our position at all costs. Having the last word might end an argument, but won’t solve the problem. Trusting your team is more important than who eats the last cookie.
As William Coyne, a former VP at 3M, said, “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing.”
Power makes people selfish.
3. You think like a soldier, not like a scout
Your mindset affects your judgment, analysis, and decision-making.
Julia Galef, the co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, explains why some information or ideas feel like our allies — we want them to win. But we think of opposing views as our enemies — we want to shoot them down.
Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. The “soldier mindset,” as Galef calls it, is rooted in the need to defend ourselves — we want to win every argument. This phenomenon is even more evident among people that hold formal authority.
The “scout mindset” on the other hand, is about understanding, not defending a position. A scout goes out and identifies the real challenge — he wants to know what’s really there.
Are you trying the make the best decision? Or to win a battle?
Leading requires balancing both mindsets — having the courage and confidence to act on what you know is right, along with the openness and humility to course correct when new information is presented.
As organizational theorist Karl Weick said, “Fight as if you’re right. Listen as if you’re wrong.”
4. You get more credit (or blame) than deserved
Being in a position of leadership is anything but neutral — you are always under a spotlight.
Regardless of your leadership style, the perception of your achievements will always be distorted. People pay too much attention to their leaders. There’s evidence that, if you are in a position of authority over others, you will get more blame and more credit than you deserve.
Bob Sutton calls it the “magnification effect.” As he explains in this talk, leaders are responsible for about 15% of their team/organizational performance, but they get about 50% of the blame or credit.
Is your self-perception blinding you?
We become arrogant when we succeed, and ignorant when we fail. There’s plenty of evidence that, when a company is performing great, leaders become more clueless and self-absorbed. Or that failure drives blaming others rather than self-reflection.
Don’t let the magnification effect distract your attention from learning from mistakes.
As Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, said, “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”
5. You are in denial (and so is your team)
Leaders are more unaware than self-aware — most believe they know themselves better than they actually do.
Studies show that 80% of people think they are better-than-average leaders. Unaware leaders deceive both themselves and others. For example, deluded leaders may come across as charismatic and talented, but their overconfidence puts their credibility at risk in the long run.
Research shows that, when there is no effective process to gather decision-makers into honest conversations about tough issues, organizations are three times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.
A similar study by Milliken & Morrison shows that 85% of employees feel unable to raise a concern with their bosses. Truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors, gossip or insincerity.
Do you promote a safe environment for people to speak up?
The emotional culture of an organization is as powerful as its cognitive counterpart. Pay attention. Silence is not the absence of fear but a consequence of it. Create a safe space where people feel confident to speak up without the fear of being ridiculed or punished.
As Wharton professor Sigal Barsade said, “Every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression.”
6. You are not being challenged
The more successful we become, the more at risk we are to error blindness. Even worse, narcissism rates have been rising steadily for decades.
A study on fraud found that narcissism can make CEOs behave unethically — they want to achieve their goals and receive praise at any cost. Highly narcissistic CEOs may help achieve bigger ambitions for their companies. However, too much narcissism may jeopardize the interests of their companies — they don’t listen to their team’s feedback.
The majority of us overestimate how good we are at listening, as a study by Accenture shows.
Are people afraid of challenging you?
Encourage your team to provide candid feedback and to address tensions in a space of mutual respect. A Gallup study shows that 7 in 10 employees strongly agree that their opinions don’t count at work. Listening will help you gain an understanding of why someone thinks differently. Be open to change your mind.
As Pixar’s director Brad Bird said, “during constructive feedback, everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together.”
7. Your Salary Distorts Your Reality
A highly-paid CEO may actually hurt an organization, according to research from the University of Cambridge.
Higher salaries do not guarantee that a leader will turn in a strong performance. Firms that pay their CEOs in the top ten percent of excess pay earn negative abnormal returns over the next three years, the researchers found.
A higher pay makes leaders believe they’re always right — that’s why they are paid so much. It unconsciously clouds their judgment. They become overconfident on their plans and ideas.
Do you believe those who earn less are not as competent as you are?
I’m not trying to make you feel bad about your salary. But, to become more aware of how your position can distort your perception. We tend to correlate salaries or titles with smarts. Thus, stop paying attention to people that are at our ‘same level.’
As Simon Sinek said, “Great Leaders don’t need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their toughness.”
Becoming vulnerable is hard. But when you don’t have to pretend you know it all, you won’t feel the need to win all the battles — you’ll focus on unleashing your team’s potential.
It’s better to be wrong than believing you are right when you are not.
Great leaders integrate diverse thinking; they embrace people who provide different perspectives and ideas. Don’t risk your credibility by trying to have all the answers. Humility promotes honesty — people will want to share candid feedback and their best ideas, instead of trying to deceive you.