The problem with being right

A few years ago, when I was still in the corporate world, my strategy and customer insight team did a huge amount of really insightful customer and competitive analysis. We dug into our internal customer data and executed several pieces of incredibly illuminating consumer research.

It became clear that the wildly successful customer growth strategy we had been pursuing was hitting a wall. We were only growing with our best customers through price increases. Other important customer segment metrics were deteriorating. Analysis of those weakening segments revealed that we had price, product and customer experience issues and that we were losing share to one competitor in particular. Not only were we missing revenue opportunities, it seemed to us that an economic downturn could prove devastating. The case for change seemed obvious.

As it turns out, I was unable to convince our leadership to make any substantive changes. And when the recession came it dealt a particularly harsh blow: sales fell more than 25% and profits halved. Only recently are the changes we envisioned being critical getting implemented. The good news is that they seem to be working.

So I must feel vindicated, right? Eh, not so much.

In my view there are three fundamental problems with being right.

The first is that you might well be mistaken. Thinking that one is right is not the same as being right. For years people thought the world was flat and that the Sun rotated around the Earth. Plenty of people have been convinced something was absolutely true when it subsequently proved false (I’m looking at you Trump).

The second problem is that a lot of times it simply doesn’t matter. Whether we like it or we think it’s fair, in business investors care about results. A really cool idea that does not get implemented might as well not exist. Ideas that are “right” are often, at best, only half the answer.

The third is the most pernicious. One of my character defects is falling into self-righteousness. When I “know” I’m right and I can’t get you to agree, I can become frustrated or angry. And when I get angry I take that out on myself or others. I get attached to the idea of winning. I become convinced that I am just one piece of scintillating data or cleverly presented argument or snazzy slide presentation away from getting you to see the worthiness of my point of view (and by extension, MY worthiness).

A life in self-righteousness is a terrible place to dwell.


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