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Skill Sets # 5: The Need to be Right

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Skill Sets # 5: The Need to be Right

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Posted February 25, 2020

“Our Ego Barrier prevents us from acknowledging our weakness. Our need to be right can come before our need to know what’s true.”  —  Principles for Success, Ray Dalio

I have been casually aware of Principles for Success: Life and Work by Ray Dalio (2017) for a while now, and when I return to it I always find something for reflection. Over the Christmas season an adapted version, Principles For Success was offered, formatted as a distillation of the considerably larger work, especially easy to read and illustrated for the younger reader.

Easy to read and illustrated works for me.  As I reviewed Principles For Success with a much younger reader, Dalio’s attractive philosophy again appealed to me, including his observations on “the need to be right”, which he defines as “the Ego Barrier”.

The Need to be Right

The “need to be right” is not a new concept. It has been referred to and largely disparaged for many years, as a coping mechanism at one end of a behavioral spectrum and an out and out disorder at the other.  Dalio did not conceive of either the phenomenon or the term, but his construct as I read it is more innocent, and less threatening to the soul.

In fact, Dalio’s take lines up nicely with the following brief comment from Psychology Today (2011):

“Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers and the ensuing higher grades, which generally lead to more successful lives. Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong. Getting the right answer becomes the primary purpose of our education. Isn’t it regrettable that this may be inconsistent with actually learning? Why Is It So Important to Be Right? Posted Mar 07, 2011

Our Ego Barrier

Articling students, and the younger calls they grow into, observably suffer from an ingrained ‘need to be right’.  We know they worry over delivering an assignment. We know they hesitate, not only on delivering the deliverable, but on acknowledging how long it may have taken them to complete it. But the urge to worry over releasing a piece of work, or to argue a point to distraction rather than to acknowledge the other side or sides, does not afflict students or younger lawyers alone.  It afflicts and inhibits lawyers of all ages, and, let’s not kid ourselves, not only lawyers, but some of our judges too (witness increasingly longer reserves).

Dalio notes that we believe our opinions without testing them. We don’t like to look at our mistakes and weakness. We are instinctively prone to react to explorations of them as attacks, leading to worse decisions, learning less, and falling short of our potential.

The Fear of Being Outed

Once again from Psychology Today:

“Can you imagine the generative and exciting learning environment that would result from a class that rewarded asking the best questions? If you think about it, the most intriguing questions are those that don’t offer simple answers. Even more, they drive our thinking into greater complexity and curiosity. This would be a most wonderful learning experience. No need to be cautious about a wrong answer. And everyone would be invited to safely participate in a generative and shared inquiry.”

Dalio associates the ego barrier with the “Blind Spot Barrier”.  The blind spot barrier exists because different people see things differently:  “If you can look at things with the help of others who can see what you are blind to, you’ll see much more than you can alone”.

As simplistic as all this may seem, in working with our younger colleagues, we need to be aware of the oppressive weight of their fear of being outed, their need to be right.  For their needs, and for our own, we need to encourage them to set aside the ego barrier, which, we need to explain, inhibits their growth by compelling them to resist asking questions, at almost any stage of an assignment, for fear of being and being seen to be wrong, or of knowing less (they assume) then we think they know or should know. For fear of being “outed”.

Our younger colleagues often do not ask us about what they do not understand, for fear that we will think less, not of any lack of knowledge but of them. And we need to change this, not just for them, but for our mutual benefit, for our firms, and for our clients.

As Dalio urges us to do, let’s “replace the joy of being right with the joy of learning what’s true.”

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at scott.mclean@mannlawyers.com.

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