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Why it is better to be wrong, then to play cover your….tookus


Let me preface these comments by stating that nobody has ever broken our website as bad as I have.  Teams in India had to work overtime to clean up my mistake.  I have been called to an RPM bridge, where the after action analysis and sole action to prevent reoccurrence was me promising “not to ever do that again.” 

It happens. 

And it wasn’t the last time I was wrong.  I am wrong on a fairly regular basis, and I’m talking face-palming, gut twisting, can’t believe I said or did that wrong.  The sort of embarrassing statement or unrecalled email you play again and again in your head to torture yourself.  And it is not just work.  I asked Ganga how Kedar was doing.  Thanked Barbara Rawlings for Sherri Branson’s team’s work.  And I pretty consistently call Keith Lehman Ken (when I’m not trying to convince him and Dave Mort to form an Adam and the Ants tribute band).  Those kind of human interaction 101 screw ups aren’t embarrassing at all.

Wrongness can happen at so many levels, but the question you have to ask yourself is how are you going to deal with it?

There are four reasons why I think it is better to go through that agony of admitting being wrong, then to try and hide from it, lie about it, or simply reject their reality and insert your own.

Reason no. 1.  I’ve learned.

The level of my naiveté when I joined this company about corporate life and the business world in general was staggering.  In the first director all-hand I ever attended I asked (out loud) what CSAT was.  I thought it had something to do with satellites.  When I first joined this group, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a view, a visit or a visitor.

But I learned and I am learning every day.  Luckily for me, I’m a knowledge junkie, and am not afraid to ask stupid questions, because they’re not stupid if I don’t know.

That’s why I love it when you guys send me research requests.  It’s a perfect excuse to go poking around in Omniture or Forrester or ABI spreadsheets or GigaOm blogs.  However, I’m attracted to shiny things and I’m also a perfectionist, so I suck, in a major way, at driving something through to completion, because it is never perfect and polished enough (yeah don’t bring up the dissertation).  So, it’s not just about learning, it’s about what you do with it.  Knowledge locked up in your brain and never shared or never acted upon is completely useless.  The greatest sin you can commit is to hoard knowledge because you think it brings power.  It doesn’t.  Not in this day and age.

[Insert here an extended discussion on how knowledge is like the gifting of gold by the Anglo-Saxons to build extra-familial relationship.  Quote Beowulf in the original Old English.  Make a pithy aside about this is the best use I will ever make of my master’s thesis, go for an extended discourse on the bitterness associated with being a medievalist in the post-modern world.  Quote Dorothy Sayers.  Throw in some Venerable Bede…and transition back]

Reason no. 2.  I got over myself (mostly)

My value and self-worth is not from being right and justifying my rightness at every turn, rehashing years of history to show that I was right then and I’m right now and everything will go so much easier when everybody agrees on how right I am.  Defensive much?  That level of defensiveness is a gigantic time suck, because you are constantly fighting a rear guard action to make sure that your rightness hasn’t slipped.  And quite honestly, it is a futile approach, given the speed of web technology evolution.  We all have to recognize that whatever it is you think you know now or knew six months ago isn’t going to be worth a tinker’s tomorrow.  What you have to know is how to adapt and ask questions.

Personally, my self-worth comes from being a good colleague and an engaged collaborator.  Being able to explain why I think the way I do, but being willing to listen to other perspectives and to be persuaded.  I’m not saying I don’t stick to my guns if I’m not persuaded, but I am at least open to being persuaded. 

Simply because somebody doesn’t agree with me, doesn’t mean that they should be subjected to a 30 page tome (with footnotes and diagrams) that clearly outline why they’re wrong and I’m right. Verbosity is no substitute for a well-reasoned opinion (I fully admit that you couldn’t prove that from some of my emails and certainly not this post).  

Leaders don’t shout people down; they learn how to make their case and to bring folks around to their way of thinking but change their own thinking when they’re wrong.  Never ever confuse leadership with authority.  You can be a leader from anywhere in the org chart.  One of the best skills you can have in the modern enterprise is how to make your case, respectfully.

Reason no. 3.  I learned to trust.

In five years at Sprint, I have had seven bosses.  Maybe I’ve been luckier than most, but I always felt like they had my back.  This is not to say that I haven’t made them nuts or even angry.  I’ve been called into a conference room and given coaching on my attitude or asked what the heck did I just do.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of having your manager show up in your cube and tell you to recall an email you just sent.   The coaching and feedback still happen (like last week), but I truly believe for all seven, it came out of a place of respect and a desire to make me a better colleague.

More importantly, regardless of my manager roulette, I trust my peers explicitly when they tell me I’m full of it.  I listen and take it to heart.  Not saying that it doesn’t sting. It does.  But if I did not trust and assume good intentions, paranoia, point scoring, and politic playing would eat my life (hello huge time suck again).  Don’t get me wrong; there is most definitely a self-righteous sanctimonious jerk that lives inside of me (along with the crazy cat lady…and several other personalities) that I try to make a conscious effort to keep reigned in, but it certainly slips out sometimes. 

Trust, of course, is a two way street.  I strive to be a colleague that people can trust.  To hold things in confidence, to be a good listener and to be as honest as I can.  I have to do better at that, because it is absolutely the little things that matter, like not calling people out in emails.  I need to stop doing that, and yes that behavior is directly related to no. 2 above. 

Reason no. 4.  People know that I don’t sling bullpuckey.

If I’m not worried about being wrong, then if I say something, it is because I honestly believe it.  If you speak truth, even to power, and don’t worry about the spin, then it can be incredibly liberating, but see nos. 2 and 3 above.  I only achieve no. 4, when I get no. 3.  And I only get no. 3 based on my actions…not what is written in this blog post.

So, my personal blathering aside about the liberating effects of being able to admit when you’re wrong and moving on, there is actually a more pertinent question that I am interested in your feedback about.  Because all the intestinal fortitude in the world won't matter if you feel that admitting you're wrong is only going to weigh against you in an organization that's awash in blamestorming (which I don't think we are, but I know some people feel that way).

What are the concrete things we can do as an organization to not be paralyzed by blame and defensiveness but focused on being able to ask questions, acknowledge problems, support each other and move on to the next shiny bauble?  

Here are some of my thoughts (please add your own in the comments):

    • You have to assume good intentions.  See above about paranoia being a huge time suck and emotionally exhausting.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask the question.  It isn’t a stupid question, if you don’t know.  If somebody calls you stupid, you have my permission to recite the rubber/glue jingle at them.
    • Being asked a question does not mean you are under attack.  Even if the person forgot to add a smiley face to the email.  Sometimes a question is just a question.  If necessary, take a breath, walk around before hitting reply all or adding a bunch of people to the cc line.
    • If you disagree with a person, take it off the distro, talk to him or her directly and then have one of you reply back to the group.  Don’t try and score points off each other in a big ol’ email.

So, at this point, I should insert some suitably uplifting YouTube clip, 10,000 Maniacs or something else you’ll hear at political rallies.  Or maybe a cute picture of a kitten “hanging in there.”  But that’s not how I roll.


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