How to Win by Being Curious vs. Being Right

By February 20, 2021 General

Would you prefer to be certain or would you rather be right?

Some might suggest that certainty and being right are the same thing – and the answer is not either/or, but both. However, there is a level of nuance here that I want to explore. As I see and experience it myself, being right can actually work against us, eroding trust among the team and diminishing a leader’s ability to lead effectively. To have certainty is to gain a level of confidence in navigating the process and what happens next that isn’t tied to specific or “right” outcomes.

By suspending our judgment and withholding our intuition and opinions on what we think is right or wrong, we admit we don’t have the answer – yet. And we open ourselves up to being curious where valuable conversation that includes what if… and have we considered… questioning can take place.

Suspending judgment is easier said than done. And it’s not just you being judgmental for the sake of it. It’s neurological.

Think about that word for a minute – judgment. It’s not something that is looked upon favorably in most contexts, so why would we need to ask or be reminded of the need to suspend it in the workplace?

Because the human brain has an insatiable desire to be right.

In her thoughtful and still relevant HBR article from 2013, Your Brain Is Hooked on Being Right, Judith Glaser outlines how chemical reactions in our brains are at work when presenting and defending a point of view. As such, we take on “fight or flight, freeze or appease” mindsets. More often than not, she says, we fight – and this can be to the detriment of our personal reputation, our teams, our collective collegiality, and the ability to achieve business goals. The problem escalates when we fight and win, as the cortisol and adrenaline become a dopamine hit that our brains welcome. It’s not surprising then that there are as many confrontational moments as collegial interactions in the workplace. (And the home. Just ask my wife and kids!)

While this is one form of neurochemistry winning out over preferred business etiquette, Glaser suggests there’s a better neurological path, too, one where the hormone oxytocin flows instead of cortisol and adrenaline. That happens when we have positive, non-confrontational human interactions, which afford us to build greater trust and openness with others. That happens when we suspend judgment.  

A Better Way to Win

All leaders think about winning, whether it’s winning new business, winning with performance metrics, winning against the competition, or winning each business quarter. But how we win, meaning how we get the most from our teams – the ones who are truly doing the competing – matters. 

Stephen Covey calls it listening to understand before being understood. Dale Carnegie said, “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”

We’ve all experienced a boss or possibly a parent that has chastised us for doing wrong, imparted their opinion, and followed up with a line such as “is that understood?” A “yes” response within a freeze or appease mindset isn’t understanding because there wasn’t any curiosity to understand the approach or action. There wasn’t any thought as to why the person performed the way they did. As a result, there’s no pursuit in finding a better way to achieve results. Judgment simply further delayed the desired positive outcome.    

As a leader, what would it mean to you and your team while in meetings or during one-on-ones if you were more curious, asking more questions to understand instead of seeking confirmation bias of what you already believe? What if you assumed the best answers are yet to be revealed? What if you waited patiently to collect more of the information possible, albeit quickly, so that better decisions could be made? And what if you withheld offering your opinions early, which too often get interpreted as directives?

Taking this approach is the practical application of emotional intelligence at work, and the best leaders possess EI; they are exceptionally self-aware. As a leader, your job isn’t to be right – on personal terms. It is to listen, understand, encourage, challenge, mine for productive conflict, and then guide the team in the best possible direction so success can be realized by the entire team. That’s getting it right for the business. Ultimately, we all want the best possible decision in the least amount of time.

Everyone knows and understands the simple ground rules of the brainstorm meeting: “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” and “withhold judgment on all ideas presented.” Imagine how much more effective our teams could be if we deployed those same ground rules more often to all other business meetings and interactions. It starts with leaders modeling the desired behaviors they want to see from their teams. If ever there was a place for greater curiosity and less judgment, it is here, in the daily doing of the work.

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