Everyone is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. Except Me of Course

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By Adam Turteltaub
adam.turteltaub@corporatecompliance.org

There’s a fascinating book by Kathryn Schulz called Being Wrong.  The work is a look at just how much we hate to admit we are wrong and how much we love to believe we are right.  We like it so much than we even take pleasure in proving we’re right about something painful:  “I knew I should’ve never dated her.” “See, I told you we wasted fifteen minutes in the wrong line.”

It doesn’t stop there.  As she observes, “…our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right.”

Why this love of being right and hatred of being wrong?  Why this often blind confidence in ourselves?  Because we need it to get through the day.  We need to have faith in our judgments or something as simple as brushing our teeth in the morning would take hours:  Did I put on enough toothpaste?  Should I move the brush up and down or sideways?  Did I brush long enough?

But, there’s a strong cost to our aversion to admitting we are wrong:  We stick to strategies long after they have proven themselves counterproductive.  We have all, at one time or another, driven too far down the road — literally or metaphorically — knowing we were probably going the wrong way, but we just couldn’t admit it to ourselves.

You can see this horrible human dynamic at work in the Wells Fargo scandal.  According to the report Shearman & Sterling delivered to the board, while accounts were being opened improperly, and while over 5,000 employees were being terminated for improper behavior, those in a position to do something wouldn’t admit that they were wrong in embracing such high sales targets.

The Shearman & Sterling report says of Carrie Tolstedt, who ran the problematic Community Bank division, ““Tolstedt and certain of her inner circle were insular and defensive and did not like to be challenged or hear negative information. Even senior leaders within the Community Bank were frequently afraid of or discouraged from airing contrary views.”  Simply put:  you couldn’t tell her she was wrong.

Making matters worse, John Stumpf, the former CEO, and her boss couldn’t admit he was wrong about her.  To quote a Reuters article about the incident and the subsequent board report: “He refused to believe the model was seriously impaired and was full of admiration for Tolstedt, with whom he had a long working relationship.”  He famously referred to her as the “best banker in America.”

This unconscious and pervasive aversion to being wrong, and the related overconfidence in our abilities is downright dangerous to any organization.  It is also an argument for two things.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Very good post. I will admit as I include myself when I say finding a Compliance Professional that is willing to admit they are wrong is like trying to convince a major league umpire that he or she missed a call.

    Practically impossible for all intents and purposes.

    And to top it off…when you go to the video…and the umpire sees that he or she did miss the call, then and only then will they RELUNCTANTLY admit it. Doesn’t sound all that foreign or far fetched in how this may apply in compliance circles.

    Of course…I could be wrong!

  2. Admitting we’re wrong is not yet valued in the work place. It should be! How would we ever learn anything otherwise? Besides Edison learning 10,000 ways NOT to do something, we have such great examples from the space and airline industries of painful lessons learned from being wrong — and figuring out how to get something right. It’s time for companies to value people who admit they are wrong, willingly (but not willy-nilly) course-correct, and humbly move forward. Move over, off-with-their-head-ers. The mercies are in town.

  3. Ego is complex. It gives us the confidence to pursue our goals yet masks our faults and failures. Not an easy thing to rein in.

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