Don't be afraid to be wrong
Being afraidDid you know there is a word for fear of being wrong? It’s known as atelophobia.
I don’t think most people have such an intense feeling of being wrong I’d say they have a phobia. Nevertheless I think it is worth talking about the fear as I find it very common in the context of teams.
Being afraid is normal but it shouldn’t get in the way of getting things done, or getting you outside of your “comfort zone”, so that you can grow effectively.
The feeling occurs because we perceive a threat or some form of danger. It differs in intensity and frequency depending on past experiences usually - either from your environment (e.g: a psychologically unsafe environment) or from specific interactions (e.g: someone once called you dumb when you put forth an idea).
I believe that in almost all workplace situations, it is not worth being afraid of being wrong, even if there is an elevated risk (rather fear maybe) of social rejection.
Wait, hold on, what if my manager is awful, or my team mates are horrible?
In my posts, especially when providing advice, I will assume you work in a healthy workplace environment. If you work in a psychologically unsafe environment, none of this even matters - if possible, and safe, search for a different job.
It will hold you backIt will make you avoid certain situations - this can remove you from contexts in which you can learn, teach others, etc.
For example, instead of going to a brainstorming session where there are more senior folks to you in which you might accelerate your growth just by listening, you choose to work on implementing something you’re comfortable with. Or perhaps you’d attend but not speak at all.
Whenever you’re in a position where you could voice an (well thought) opinion, you opt instead to not speak. This will be safe for you but you lose the opportunity to teach someone something new. And not speaking means you have less presence (usually), which in turn means people might think you have nothing to offer. That will then mean people stop inviting you as you never contribute.
It will make you more defensiveI’ve seen this more times than I can count.
Someone brilliant is so afraid of being wrong that they work intensely, take twice as long to get to that draft as they should have, and try to capture all of the nuances and tradeoffs, that when they show it to people they think there can’t be objections.
Then the objections appear. And then you defend your position because you know everything. And then another objection appears. And you are less sure because it’s a good point but you didn’t think of it, and so you defend it by saying you don’t think it’s that important. And then another objection comes and you’re now thinking that everyone thinks you didn’t think carefully enough about things. And so you…. You see where I’m going.
At the end of a meeting/presentation/document feedback like that you are frustrated, you think people think less of you, and people around you are wondering why it took you so long to show the draft. Everyone loses.
Oh, and next time you try this, you’re going to be even more careful - and therefore more defensive when the objections show up.
It will stress you out moreIf you are constantly self regulating due to fear, you’ll feel and be more stressed.
Stress means you find everything more difficult. You will be less patient. You will close yourself to feedback a lot more.
Because you’re constantly in this fight or flight mode, you question yourself and your abilities.
And I’m here to tell you: none of it is worth the stress.
It won’t do you any good for me to simply say “don’t stress about it”. So let’s see what you can do to overcome your fear of being wrong.
What you can do to continue engagingThe main thing to remember is that being wrong isn't the end of the world. Most likely everyone has already forgotten you got something wrong. The feeling you're having right after being wrong will fade away. With some practice, you will be able to recover from being wrong faster and faster.
Let’s go over a few situations and how to recover from them when you’re wrong. There are many more but these should get you started on how to think about it.
Group discussionsIn group discussions, the best way to recover is to say it out loud and continue engaged with the conversation.
Saying something along the lines of "I got it wrong. I guess I'm one of the lucky 10000 today". A bit of humour will go a long way to disarm folks and make you feel better. My recommendation in this specific situation is not to use self deprecating humour though.
It is important you keep a growth mindset and continue engaged and asking curious questions.
This will help you get up to speed faster, it will signal to folks you aren't afraid of being wrong, and it will help you compartmentalise the feeling of being wrong.
Decision making contextsIn decision making contexts (especially through async methods, like documents), the best way to recover is to acknowledge you were wrong, then move to working on the next draft with the new information.
It's also imperative you keep communicating with the stakeholders on where you're at, your new understanding and how you're re-engaging with the problem.
This will do two things: prevent paralysis and also show that you’re above the fact you made a mistake.
1:1 meetingsFor managers: this one is going to hurt. You will immediately be disappointed, get some impostor syndrome, and think you’re not suitable to be a manager.
First things first: very much like if you were in a group discussion, blurt out “I got it wrong.”
Then you can open up from a place of vulnerability - after all you’re supposed to be in a safe place.
For direct reports: I’ve got good news for you. The moment you state “I got it wrong. How do I go about fixing this?” your manager will appreciate you more for it.
It’s a delight for a manager to get that kind of response - get over the mistake, keep head high, move towards improving and growing.
Preparing mentally for when you're wrongIt’s very helpful to prepare yourself for the very fact you will end up being wrong. Doing so will ensure you can react in the best ways.
- Without over-thinking and over-preparing, map out what is the worst thing that can happen in any way you could be wrong. And map out the best outcome if you’re right. This is useful in asynchronous contexts - you can easily figure out how to react, navigate the objections if you’re wrong.
- Write down what you know and what you don’t know about the topic. Explicitly state when it’s an idea that can be discarded, when it’s a hunch, when it’s something that you know nothing about but it has occurred to you - this sets the scene for you and everyone to safely discard/accept what you’re saying.
- Train yourself to not regurgitate the “this is how I’ve always done it, therefore we should do it”. This won’t make you right, or remove the fear of being wrong - it will just make everyone question if there was a contribution in there somewhere.
- Think back and write down times when you were wrong and real consequences of those. Usually you will realise there has never been a terrible consequence except some embarrassment that lingered for a day or two. (As an experiment I have asked people a few times if they remember that one time when I said something that was wrong - almost always they have no idea what I am talking about - they simply immediately forgot about it).
ConclusionEverything is fine. Deep breaths, keep your head high, your sights on the future, and growing resilience.
If the feeling persists, go for a walk alone (I tend to do this and I can only vouch that it works for me). A walk will make you reflect without the pressure of people around you, phones, computers, etc.
And that reflection bit is what will make you evolve. Everyone has already forgotten you were wrong.
One final word of advice: being wrong is fine but you don’t want to always be wrong - that means my advice here is no substitute for working hard and thinking critically.
Now go forth and engage. Be human. Sometimes you’ll be wrong. And that’s fine.
Thank you Hanna for the many suggestions and edits.
~ fin ~