This is personal. And embarrassing.
In my early years, I enjoyed arguing. I liked to win debates. Count points, even if others didn’t know. I liked being right. I especially wanted to hear others tell me so. Sometimes, I would even argue views I didn’t share just for the sake of winning an argument (let that sink in!). But who knew that even being right, I could be so wrong. Ouch.
First, I was not always right. That was a hard lesson to learn. Second, I had to learn that even when I was right, “being right” didn’t always get me what I wanted. This was a more important lesson to learn. For life. For leadership. I’ve grown so much and am a different person now, but this was a challenging obstacle for me to overcome.
Meet Gail. I needed a wake-up call.
Early in my career, my boss selected me for an inter-departmental team to drive significant transformation. We would expand our visibility to other departments and senior leaders. Visibility is great when you are demonstrating your value. We had several of the finest executives in our reporting structure and they were deeply involved and generously mentoring us. It was an honor, and we all knew it was a great career opportunity.
I have so many positive memories and deep friendships from that project, but one stands out as a life-changing milestone. The project was progressing well and I knew the leaders viewed my performance positively. Gail, our project executive, scheduled a status review with me. It went well.
At the end, she asked if I wanted a career with the company. To be honest, I thought she was about to promote me. When I told her I’d love a career, I was stunned by her reply. Gail talked about my potential but said I needed to work on some key leadership behaviors that would get in the way. Namely, “you can’t lead if people won’t follow you.” (Yes, write that down! It’s among the most obvious yet least understood leadership truths I’ve ever heard.)
Gail delivered this difficult message in a spirit of partnership and from a place of genuine concern. She explained that some on the team felt like I didn’t value their opinion, that everything had to be my way. She told me, “Not all hills are worth dying on.” (I still think about that often; it’s a guiding principle that stands the test of time.) I sat there thinking she must have misread the feedback, but I didn’t argue with her. I thanked her for letting me know and committed to work on it. But, I left her office convinced there was a misunderstanding.
Meet Mark. I needed help.
I returned to the office and couldn’t get it off my mind. I was bewildered. Aggravated. Frustrated. Angry. Confused. After a couple of hours, I asked a buddy to go for coffee. Meet Mark. We ended up working around each other for over 15 years. I could write a book about him. There was something different about Mark. Everyone loved him. People followed him. He could explain the most complicated things in the simplest terms. He was usually the smartest person in the room but no one thought about him that way. I trusted him, so I shared the feedback I’d just heard.
Mark said, “It’s true.” Not at all what I was expecting to hear. He went on to explain the problem with the team wasn’t so much what I said, but how I said it. He told me I was usually selling great ideas that no one would ever buy. (Ouch!) He gave me examples, and most of them had to do with me forcefully arguing my point, impatience with others who didn’t catch on, and an unwillingness to hear how my good ideas could be better if others contributed. It was a great conversation. He was sincere. Even though I didn’t see it and felt it was unfair, I knew he wanted to help (that is another key leadership lesson I learned from him).
So, we made a deal. I can’t fix something I don’t see. So the first step was to recognize the problem myself. We made a deal that every time Mark observed this behavior from me, he would pull his ear like Carol Burnett ended each comedy episode. It would be my signal to pay close attention to what I was saying, how I was saying it, and how others were responding.
My aha moment.
I will never forget the first time I noticed the signal. It took me a few minutes, but it became clear the mood of the room was tense (I had not realized it). Some were rolling their eyes. I replayed the conversation in my head and realized I had been unnecessarily direct. It took more incidents for me to connect the dots and understand what everyone else in that room already knew: I had some work to do if I was going to be able to lead and influence others. Thanks to Gail and Mark, I now knew it.
Several behaviors needed growth, but the biggest one was tackling this need to be right, recognizing that winning battles can lose the war. But Mark was just the guy to coach me. He helped me understand that even when you are right, it sometimes takes others a little time to catch up. And, sometimes, even your good idea can get better when others contribute. And when others add to it, the idea becomes theirs, too. Their ownership helps propel it. And, sometimes, while my idea is a good one, their idea is good enough, and it’s better to save my energy to push for ideas that are more critical for our success (remember Gail’s advice about hills worth dying on?). He also taught me that sometimes I’m not right, but won’t know it unless I learn to listen. Showing others I can admit when I’m wrong, increases my credibility when I’m right. So many lessons from Mark.
My zeal in preaching my ideas was motivated by genuine interest in the team’s success. But, I also learned my ego was driving unhealthy and unproductive behaviors. I was arguing beyond my explanation. I was debating things that didn’t need addressing. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to re-learn this lesson. I guess I’m a slow learner. Gail wasn’t the first to bring this up. I can remember hearing this beginning in my youth. My parents and teachers. Supervisors. Mentors. Friends. The situations were different. They used different words. But like what I learned from Gail and Mark, the message has always been spot-on: Do you want to be right or be effective? For me, it was a long journey to understand this and to address it.
As a leader, I often have to make a choice. Do I want to stroke my ego and prove my point? Or do I want to influence the outcome? Thanks to Gail, Mark, and so many others, I understand what’s at stake with this choice.
What’s wrong with being right?
There’s nothing wrong with being right, unless how you go about it leads to wrong outcomes.
Remember the story of the little boy who was running around the house. His father kept asking him to sit down. Frustrated, his Dad finally raised his voice and firmly instructed the boy to “Sit down.” Recognizing the “Dad voice,” the boy finally sat down. Stewing about it, he said, “I might be sitting down, but in my heart I’m standing up.” Dad had won superficial obedience. He won the battle for the seat but lost the battle for the heart.
Too often, the “best” you get is outward “compliance” when what you need is commitment. In those cases, you might get a “yes, you are right” response followed by digging in of the heart with resentment. Outcomes matter.
There’s nothing wrong with “being right,” except it usually means someone else walks away feeling demoralized or frustrated.
When you present the “facts,” some will adjust their behavior as you want. When you prove your point, some “fall into line.” But, “proving your point” or “being right” usually escalates into more of verbal judo, an interaction with overt or underlying shades of “superiority-inferiority.” It often looks like the scene of a schoolyard bully who wears them down. Or, overwhelms them with “facts.” It can spring from insecurities and the need to overcompensate. Or, a strong need to stroke ego. Or, a strong desire for the team to succeed and a deep conviction about what “right” looks like. Regardless, it can leave others damaged or broken. (Did you realize you can have that impact on others?)
Instead of achieving the desired outcome, it sets up a competition where winning is about someone being right and someone being wrong. That can be a demoralizing event that impacts more than this single interaction. It can hurt individual relationships and damage team dynamics. Think about the impacts to work performance. As a leader, consider the impacts to other work. Don’t win battles but lose wars.
There’s nothing wrong with being “right,” except when you are not right.
Have you ever wondered how often your “facts” are really just opinions? Sometimes two opposing facts can co-exist. Sometimes an argument is lost, not because the fact is wrong, but because there’s another fact you didn’t understand.
If you like to win arguments, nothing is more satisfying than catching an opponent with one of these. If you like to win arguments, nothing is more defeating than for your opponent to shut you up with one. Humility in both cases wins the day.
There’s nothing wrong with being right, but it’s more important to be effective.
After you win an argument, does it change their behavior? Isn’t that the true standard of effectiveness? Aren’t you arguing because you want to change the other party’s actions? If you are counting wins by points, you are probably stacking up an impressive display of meaningless trophies.
Being right leads to a short-term ego stroke and perhaps even a feeling of self-righteousness. Being effective might mean forgoing of that euphoria in the short-term in exchange for an increased chance to achieve the desired outcome.
This leads to a higher standard for most leadership decisions. How you communicate. Which path to choose. How to react in crisis. How to coach a team member. How to respond to customer complaints. How to negotiate a supplier deal. How you lead that transformation.
Make a choice.
What is it you seek to accomplish? What’s the most effective path to get there, and get there in a way to sustain it? As a leader, I have to keep my focus on the outcomes I want, not feeling superior, or stroking my ego along the way.
Leading is not about me. It’s about the organization. About the people. It’s about those I lead.
This is true at work. But it’s also true everywhere we lead. In the community. At school. In the neighborhood association. At church. At home.
Lessons I’ve learned:
- I don’t have to attend every argument I’m invited to. Make sure the investment is worth the payout. Gail Dawson made this point by asking, “Is this a hill worth dying on?” Choose your battles.
- It’s never beneficial to start an argument. There are better ways to influence others. This doesn’t mean you run from conflict, but don’t use argument to tackle it.
- I’m not always as right as I think I am. Humility goes a long way for all of us, especially leaders. “I told you so” is the response of someone in it for the ego boost. If you feel that, it’s a signal you shouldn’t ignore.
- Less telling. More questions. Asking questions is better than making statements.
Listening makes me smarter. They see things I don’t. I learn, and my ideas improve.
The right question might make someone think and self-discover. Hearing themselves explain something out loud can help them see gaps in their thinking.
When a big decision needed to be made, a former leader would go on a listening campaign. Rick Harder would meet with the other decision-makers individually to ask their opinions, hear their views, and influence their thinking before the group meeting where decisions were to be made. Shrewd.
- It’s okay to express disagreement about a belief or dispute a fact, but …
It’s never okay to make it about the person.
How I disagree determines whether I have an impact or not.
It’s always right to #BuildThemUp.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m still learning this lesson.
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com. Join his community at www.NeverUnderestimatePeople.com for a monthly newsletter and access to other resources, including his Great Leader Framework.
Copyright © 2020 Kevin D. Phillips. All Rights Reserved.
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