Escape the Right/Wrong Thinking Trap in Leadership

Right Wrong thinking TrapMy clients are all extremely bright, high-achieving leaders, which bodes well for them in so many areas of performance and success – and there is one notable place where this can backfire in leadership. When ultra smart, high-achieving leaders are accustomed to being right often, they can lose the ability to listen with openness to statements, perspectives, approaches, and strategies that run counter to their own. They wind up holding onto their definition of “right” too tightly, which can really send the wrong message to colleagues and direct reports – and limit innovation and results. On the surface, this can simply be irritating. But the right/wrong thinking trap goes far beyond the surface.

This right/wrong thinking trap or tendency is more dangerous than you might think. When someone with this propensity holds power as a leader, others then get accustomed to their being right – and stop bringing other ideas to the table. This perpetuates a cycle where team members won’t bother to question you, challenge you, or even speak up with a different idea. The consequences of this cycle are devastating to innovation, collaboration, psychological safety, and excellence as a team. Letting go of the right/wrong thinking trap and agree/disagree context is key for high-achievers to master collaborative communication.

As management guru Peter Drucker said, “Our mission in life should be to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.” The reality is that many leaders never learn this lesson or learn it the hard way.

The Curse of a High IQ

I have noticed a few things in common with the clients I have who fall into the right/wrong thinking trap:

  • They have extremely high IQs
  • They like to tell me how smart they are, and specifically where they went to school
  • They have an intrinsic need to be right

They have extremely high IQs

The first commonality does not really need to be explained, other than these are usually the smartest people in any given room. I’m not just talking above average; I’m talking about top 2% of the population.

They like to tell me how smart they are and where they went to school

It’s funny because it is obvious when I am in conversation with someone who is that sharp. I realize it before they tell me 17 times. Why is the need to prove intelligence highest among those that have the least need to prove it?

This is similar to the phenomenon where the more qualifications you rack up as a leader, the more likely you are to list them. The problem with this is that you can send a message to others, however unintentionally, that you are placing yourself above them. Your goal as a leader is to get them to challenge you and collaborate with you, not “yes” you.

They have an intrinsic need to be right

Who doesn’t like to be right? However the intrinsic need to be right goes above the desire to be right. They are accustomed to being right and don’t have much practice or tolerance for being wrong. They also have a need to get credit and feel valued. This intrinsic need is detrimental to their ability to effectively lead; it can show up in poor listening skills, judgmental communication, attachment to a specific outcome, and micromanaging employees.

The Leadership Consequences of the Curse of the High IQ

If you are hell-bent on winning arguments, who is going to pick a fight with you? Put yourself in the shoes of your direct report – if you know your boss won’t listen to your ideas because they always favor their own approach over others’, why would you continue bringing ideas to the table? No one will speak up or challenge you if they expect you will just shoot them down. This leads to mediocre results, at best. It leads to a team of followers and “yes” people, rather than the innovative and critical thinkers that you need on your team, who will stand up for what is right. It leads to a culture of resignation, where “there’s no point to disagreeing.”

Organizational psychological Adam Grant calls these people logic bullies in his bestselling book, Think Again. He defines a logic bully as, “someone who intimidates others with endless arguments.” If you are a leader who uses facts and examples to push your perspective on others until they agree with you, this is a sign you might be a logic bully. If you have a habit of responding to people who disagree with you in a condescending way; if you often feel the need to prove people wrong; if you have trouble getting feedback; or if you are closed-minded to diverging perspectives, you are in danger of falling into the right/wrong thinking trap, and possibly the phenomenon I refer to here as the Curse of the High IQ.

The cost of over-focusing on intelligence and hard skills in leadership is that other leadership competencies may suffer. When you have an IQ of a zillion, you have likely gone through life being right most of the time. This can create a need to speak up and over others, have your perspective front and center, enter a conversation with a set-in-stone POV, and lack patience for listening to others opinions and perspectives.

The problem is that your role as a leader is not to have all the right answers, problem solve at the frontline level, or even know all the details of what your team is working on. Your role is to set the vision, hire the right people, and empower them to do their jobs effectively; whereas being set in your ways and right all the time is disempowering for your team. Your job is to ensure everyone on your team is aware of, focused on, and aligned to the goals – to ensure your team’s efforts are aligned with the greater organizational goals. It is also your job to notice when performance is not meeting expectations or leading to goals, and shift accordingly. What it does not entail is micromanaging every tactic, idea, and detail along the way.

This job description of leader requires you to step back and let your team be the experts at whatever their roles are, listen to them and their perspectives and strategies, trust their insights and approaches, and gather information and feedback from all players and teams so that you can make decisions that will benefit the organization as a whole.

How can you do that if you have an intrinsic need to be right? You can’t…

Case Study: When Paolo Fell Into the Right/Wrong Thinking Trap

I had a client who fell into this trap; we can call him Paolo and he was the Chief Marketing Officer at a high-growth startup. In the first few sessions, he had shared with me that he did his MBA at Harvard Business School. After the tenth time he shared with me where he went to business school, I asked him, “Where did you get your MBA?” We both laughed and he realized that he had over communicated that with me. This opened up a conversation about why that was, where else he does this, and what effect it has on others.

The following week, he arrived at our session noticeably irritated by one of his newer direct reports, who kept trying to debate him on one piece of a marketing strategy. “Doesn’t Edward know that he isn’t going to win this? I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time teaching my team about how to do something the right way.” He wanted to work on how to communicate to his direct reports that they were wrong in a kinder way, as one of his goals was to improve his patience and empathy as a leader.

My radar went up on this. Edward was a senior director whom he had hired to create and execute on a digital B2C marketing strategy, and the point they were debating was a valid one without a clear-cut solution. I asked him to explain both his “right” strategy and Edward’s “wrong” strategy, and began to ask questions so we could unpack the different approaches. In this case, I could see where both approaches had potential for being both “right” and “wrong.” Paolo could only see the benefits of his own approach.

I invited him to lean in as we unpacked why it was that he was closed off to a new strategy. We realized together, that it was because being challenged was new for him and felt like an attack. He didn’t know how to NOT be right, and he couldn’t see where a blend of both might fit in. This was a pivotal point in his leadership journey, and we realized that he was creating an environment where his team was not empowered to do their jobs, not invited to challenge him, and not eager to speak up if what they had to say did not already match Paolo’s point of view. Edward was new, which is probably why he felt comfortable pushing back on Paolo on the marketing strategy; he didn’t yet know Paolo’s tendencies. But if Paolo kept acting this way, Edward would surely lower his voice and raise his guard.

Over the next few weeks, Paolo began to see this pattern in his leadership play out among his team, and was shocked at his own behavior and how he had been showing up as a leader and creating the type of environment he says he didn’t want. He set an intention to be a more collaborative communicator going forward.

Paolo is a classic example of a super smart person who needed to learn how to lead. He was excellent at his craft, but had a lot to learn when it came to leadership. To quote Marshall Goldmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Edward was the best at marketing, and he needed to shed some of the ways he moved through the world as an independent contributor, in order to learn new ways to lead. For him, his learning edge was in digging himself out of the right/wrong thinking trap and embracing curiosity and collaborative communication over judgment. The marketing strategy they wound up executing was a blend.

Black-and-White Thinking, Righteousness, and the Toll They Take

Much of Paolo’s story points to a relevant theme in leadership, which is getting trapped into black and white thinking. In order for leaders to realize greater of possibilities for success for their organizations, teams, and themselves, they need to embrace both/and thinking – and remove the black and white context. They need to welcome the in-between shades of grey.

As a leader, if you think you know all the right answers, you are limiting yourself and your organization to what you see, and cutting yourself off from what other possibilities lay ahead. You will lack curiosity and a growth mindset when you think you know all the answers – and both are critical in the mindset of a leader. In order to embrace both/and thinking, you must step into an attitude, mindset, and even a posture where you are open to learning, open to being wrong, and generally open to the possibilities that exist that you haven’t heard of before.

Righteousness does not fit into this leadership mindset, and humility is a necessary ingredient. Grant describes this kind of mindset as thinking like a scientist. He said when you think like a scientist, “You favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right.” His book – which I highly recommend – explains further about the benefits of being willing to change your mind, particularly in leadership contexts.

Between Right and Wrong

Of course, when you swim in the grey areas between right and wrong, it does tend to complicate things. Black and white thinking creates certainty and simplicity, which can feel familiar and comfortable. Living in the in-between creates a flavor of uncertainty that many find uncomfortable.

The problem is, leadership challenges are most often too contextual and nuanced to be black and white. It would be nice if they were simple, but they most often are not. Given this, my invitation to leaders is to notice and resist the seductive urge to oversimplify and get more comfortable … in the uncomfortable in-between.

Read Part 2 of this article, 6 Ways to Embrace a Both/And Leadership Mindset and Communication Approach.

“The hallmark of a productive debate is not persuasion, but insight. In a good argument, you’re as motivated to learn as to convince. You can declare victory when everyone involved has deepened their understanding, broadened their knowledge, or evolved their thinking.”
Adam Grant

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.