Executive’s Need to Always Be Right Can Be Detrimental

The e-mails after last month’s column were highly divided. Some thought that focusing on vision more than on problems was a powerful way to completely reframe the way they responded to their business. Others, including one particularly eloquent correspondent from northwest Arkansas, labeled the entire concept as something more commonly found in barnyards than in business offices (at least as far as he was concerned). Always one to engage in conflict for the sake of clarity, I thought I would use this month’s column as an opportunity to provide an example of the power of focusing on vision.

Every executive and every company is different; however, there are some behaviors and attitudes that coaches report as fairly common. One of the most pervasive is an executive’s need to be right, sometimes to his own detriment. Consider this situation from a client organization:

John is the vice president of business development for a technology company with sales of about $650 million. He has an idea for a new product and feels strongly that it will provide rich returns to the company. He asks Julian, the CEO, for funding to set up a development team. He feels so strongly about the new product that he even raises the idea of moving into the product management role personally.

Julian likes the idea, but he is not convinced that developing from scratch is the best way to market. He suggests looking for a partner that would give them a head start getting to market.

John mentally runs the traps. He is aware that there are companies to acquire or with whom they could form a joint venture; however, he is also sensitive about losing control. He views the CEO’s developing opinion as a problem and his own anxiety rises in response. As such, he moves instantly to begin to counter it.

In a situation like this, John would do well to keep himself focused on the best outcome for the company, which is a successful market entry into a new product line. Rather than defending against a perceived hijacking of his project, he should engage in a conversation that gives both strategies fair consideration.

In the end, the way to market with the most merit would win out. Either way, John would still be attached to the initiative and it would be a funded project. John’s need to be right has kept him focused on a perceived problem rather than on the outcome he originally wanted to create.

Our minds are predisposed to categorize information, and we are trained early as managers to look for the most efficient process to solve the problem in front of us. However, because everyone has a different body of experience, each person involved may have a different view of the best way to accomplish the goal. There is also a tendency in most people to respond negatively to information that threatens an existing plan. Our mind will move to preserve the picture we hold of ourselves and our work unless we purposely set aside our predisposed ideas in order to engage well in a discussion. There are times in which the ability to advocate is required and valuable — but when we are advocating without having made a conscious decision to do so, we are generally in trouble.

Remaining focused on the vision of what we are trying to create is one way to avoid the single-mindedness trap. When all else fails, the best indicator that we are stuck trying to be right is our own blood pressure. If you sense your anxiety rising, especially in response to an outside opinion, you might consider taking a few deep breaths and rethinking the issue on the table from the viewpoint of the end-state vision.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, May 29, 2006.