life is an echoIt took me about six years to learn how not to make this mistake at work. In some ways, I am still learning how to avoid it, as my instinct as an engineer and an overachiever is to tell people that I am right when I feel that I am right. 

You may say, “if you are right, why can’t you tell people so?” Well, I can tell you right now, even when you know you are right, it’s better not to lead with it unless you don’t care about breaking relationships. Guess what? No one wants to be told that they are wrong, especially in front of other people.

Here is a simple example: Imagine that your colleague is presenting a progress-to-date report for a month’s worth of his work while at a team meeting. in his presentation, you noticed that he made a mistake in one of his calculations. Would you point it out during the meeting? Your instincts may say, “yeah, why not? He is wrong, and it’s better for him to know.” You may also feel like this is a chance to show that you are smarter. Well, resist, because it won’t be worth it — All you are doing is letting your insecurities lead your actions. Instead, be smart and use the opportunity to build a closer relationship with this colleague.

How?  Well, unless the team is planning to make a critical business decision on this wrong data, you should never make anyone look bad in public.  You wouldn’t want that if the situation was reversed.  Wait until the meeting is over to tell him about it, in private.  He will greatly appreciate that you didn’t embarass him in front of the team, and there was no harm done to the business since the data wasn’t critical in any decision making.  The most important outcome of doing it this way is you now have a colleague that will probably look out for your interest in the future.

Moral of the story:

  • Always do things that build the relationship.  You never know when you need someone else to help you, so don’t ever put “someone under the bus” or “make people look stupid” just because you think you are right, or want to show that you are smarter.
  • Don’t directly say “I think you are wrong.”  It’s always better to soften the way you approach it.   In the example above, when you pull him aside, say something like.. “Can you walk me through this slide again? I want to make sure I understand it.  I thought this number would be xxx, but perhaps I don’t understand it fully.”  This gives the person a chance to realize on their own whether they are wrong or not.  For all you know, you may have misread it, and it was actually right.
  • There is rarely a clear right or wrong in business – I have encountered many times in my consulting projects where I thought I had the “right” solution, but I didn’t take time to think through how best to position the solution to the client. Every company has its history, and every person has their incumbent bias. If you just come at them with “here is a better answer to your problem, and you need to change,” you will rarely get a warm reception. Why? Because you just made people feel stupid, or showed that perhaps you don’t understand their business enough to know how to help them change in the right way. The right solution to a business problem may not be implementing the best solution, but a good enough solution that the organization and leadership can accept and implement.
  • Approaching a conversation with the perspective that you are right and they are wrong is fruitless – You’ve effectively created a win-lose situation.  No one wins in that case.  You will feel awful even if you are in the right, because you just sacrificed the relationship for the sake of proving yourself right.  Is it worth it?

Business success depends on you mastering the skills necessary for building key relationships.  Next time you have the urge to tell someone they are wrong, first think of this simple rule – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.   You want to reach a point in business where you no longer need to tell anyone you are right.  You want to build such good relationships that everyone around you will always respect who you are and listen to what you have to say.  Best wishes to your career success.

Your comments: Does this article resonate with you?  Do you ever have the urge to tell people they are wrong?   Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.

– Lei

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