Few people like being wrong. It can feel humbling, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. But what if we’re wrong about being wrong? Being wrong can be one of the best things you can be, says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and author of the new book Questions are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life.
“We’re deeply connected to answers being more important than questions,” he says. “We get advanced and promoted by having the right answers. Schools are especially exceptional at shutting down questions, telling kids and young adults that the way to get ahead here is by rapidly spitting back the right answers.”
As a result, many of us don’t feel comfortable talking about problems, challenges, struggles, and things we don’t know. If you’re a manager, it can be even harder. Leaders are supposed to have all of the answers, keeping their weaknesses to themselves. They’re supposed to know with conviction the right direction for the company.
“Going about your day being more answer-centered and right-focused is like living in an isolation chamber,” says Gregersen. “You stay in a space with people who reinforce what you already know. Acknowledging where your thinking is wrong, however, is how you stay in question mode. The longer we stay in wrongness, the more likely we are to stumble over catalytic questions that others have not yet thought to ask.”
Questions don’t simply arise when we’re wrong, says Gregersen; they come when we think we’re wrong. “Instead of waking up trying to confirm what you already believe, adopt a growth mindset,” he says. “Go into your day saying, ‘I know there’s some corner of my mental model that’s off. How and when am I going to surface that. What can I do today to reframe something I see in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise?'”
Strong Leaders Aren’t Afraid of Being Wrong
A good example of someone who embraces being wrong is Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer. He regularly challenges his mental models in two ways. The first is by creating “crucible” experiences. When he faces moments of adversity, he uses them to spark deep levels of self-reflection. The second is by deliberately raising questions that challenge his mental models.
In Gregersen’s book, Wilke says: “If you never ask questions and you never experience anything new and you never enter any crucibles, your model becomes stale. You don’t really build any new awareness of the world. But if you seek out things that you don’t know, and you have the courage to be wrong, to be ignorant–to have to ask more questions and maybe be embarrassed socially–then you build a more complete model, which serves you better in the course of your life.”
Several successful leaders welcome being wrong, says Gregersen. “Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP, wakes up every day wondering what he’s dead wrong about,” he says. “Spanx CEO Sara Blakely grew up with her father asking her, ‘What did you fail at this week?’ If by the end of the week she hadn’t failed, she wasn’t trying hard enough. She said she learned that being wrong leads you to the next best thing. Without being willing to be wrong, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”
Practice Being Wrong
The way to embrace being wrong is to do it more often, says Gregersen. Learn a new skill, such as a craft or a new language. Confront ideas or perspectives that you don’t agree with or understand. Or visit a foreign country. By going into a new situation, you quickly learn what it’s like to not have any answers.
You can also put yourself into places where you can bump into passive data. For example, instead of sitting in a corner office, GM CEO Mary Barra visits plants, looking for something new.
“On one visit Mary noticed someone on the assembly line who had built a tool uniquely fitted for them,” says Gregersen. “She took 20 minutes out of the tour to go over to the person and ask questions. ‘What’s going on here? What’s the point? Why do you need it?’ She was trying to figure out some crucial edges of system.”
Or surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you you’re wrong. At Pixar, for example, story ideas are pitched and explored with positive and constructive negative feedback. “It’s exhaustive but intense crucial data,” says Gregersen. “The feedback is not about person; it’s the movie they’re building and developing. You have to have created safe spaces for toughest questions to be asked and answered to build something better.”
Being wrong is the key to success in a world that’s operating on the edge of uncertainty, says Gregersen. “It’s unnerving and fearful for so many people,” he says. “But that’s the way to get to an answer no one thought about. It’s counterintuitive. We want to race to solve something when confronted with challenge. Instead, step back and create conditions that make you wrong. The questions will surface and unlock the window of an answer that otherwise would not have come.”