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When Being Right Is Wrong

By Gerald Walsh ©

One person that you should never attempt to prove wrong is your boss. Even if you are absolutely right. I learned this lesson the hard way several years ago, long before I entered the human resource field.

Then, I was working for a major bank. I had prepared a lengthy report assessing the financial position of a potential client. My boss, a veteran banker, agreed with my analysis completely. The only revision he wanted was for me to change a single word – a grammatical change only.

I can still remember the sentence I had used in the report: “None of these options is acceptable.” He felt I had misused the word “is” and asked me to change it to “are” so the sentence would be, “None of these options are acceptable.”

Being the grammar freak that I am, I self-righteously pointed out to him that the word “none” is an abbreviation of “not one.” Therefore, if you inserted “not one” into the sentence, it would make sense to use “is”: “Not one of these options is acceptable.”

Even though I was right and he was wrong, it was a mistake on my part to point out his error, as it dampened the working relationship between us for some time.

Fortunately, we got over that incident and enjoyed a mutually respectful relationship for the balance of the time I worked with the bank. In fact, we even joked about it from time to time. Looking back, though, I should have kept quiet and changed that word. The rest of the report was well crafted and that single error would not have made a difference in anyone else’s eyes. It really wasn’t that important, but for some reason I wanted to be right.

The need to be right is a very common behavioural problem among managers and professionals. My belief is that this trait is rooted in competitiveness: the need to win all the time. I’m not suggesting that being competitive is wrong. The workplace rewards competitive people and a degree of competitiveness is necessary to be successful in our careers.

But determining where that line is, between being competitive (which is okay) and overly competitive (which can be destructive), is crucial to maintaining satisfactory working relationships with co-workers, suppliers, customers, families, friends, and others. Unfortunately, many intelligent people cross that line frequently and often, the consequences are severe and long lasting.

In my coaching practice, I’ve witnessed many examples of when people cross the line in order to be “right” and prove someone else “wrong.”

I know of one general manager who has lost the loyalty and respect of many of his employees because he publicly criticized one employee who had made a serious mistake in a report.

I know of one senior administrator who so strongly opposed a reorganization being implemented by his president that he was labelled “not a team player” and subsequently lost his job.

I know of an individual who has permanently harmed a long-term friendship with a co-worker because she doesn’t like the name the co-worker had given to her newborn daughter, and told her so.

I know of another individual who so ardently critiqued a colleague’s public presentation, by focusing on her mistakes and not her strengths, that he damaged that person’s confidence for some time.

In each of these instances, one person felt strongly that they were right. Perhaps they were right, who knows. But to prove themselves right, they crossed the line and unfortunately ended up paying the price.

Many people get so focused on the small win that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Before you go down that path the next time you’re feeling “right”, ask yourself these questions:

What would happen if I just let this go?

What are the consequences, good and bad, of being right?

Am I really trying to prove how smart I am or boost my own ego?

Am I really just trying to prove the other person wrong or to put them down?

Carefully reflecting on the answers to those questions might just cause you to take a different path. Remember, the need to be right all the time can be a significant limitation to your career success. Learning to manage that tendency appropriately is a valuable leadership behaviour.

I would like to receive your comments and questions about this topic. Please email me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com and I will respond to you.


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn