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Speaker: When It’s All Right To Be Wrong

Author Kathryn Schulz spoke at GWSB on Jan. 28 about the value of being wrong.

Being right may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, mistakes can open the door to better leadership and even stronger successes, according to Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

In the business world, where the economic crisis has sparked discussion about leadership failure, Schulz’s book offers insight into the dangers of a culture that over-values being right all the time.  The author, a journalist, spoke about those dangers Jan. 28 as part of an ongoing series of events designed to brings public intellectuals to the business school arena.  The gathering, followed by a lively question-and-answer session, drew faculty, students, alumni and university staff.

Schulz’s book “offers good lessons for leaders,” Dean Doug Guthrie said in opening the presentation. “We have lots of examples in which leaders have a difficult time saying ‘I’ve made a mistake.”

There are psychological and even physiological reasons why people like to be right. But that single-mindedness can cause leaders to surround themselves with only people who agree with them, Schulz explained.  It also makes them discard the ideas of those who disagree, regardless of whether the counter-arguments have validity.

And that can erode a leader’s respect within a team.

“We don’t want to see mistakes where stakes are high,” Schulz said.  “But we’re poorly served by the attitude that mistakes are made by stupid people.  If that’s your conclusion, then what’s your strategy?  Just to hire perfect people?”

“You aren’t necessarily successful when all you do is focus on eliminating mistakes,” she said.

In a discussion following the presentation, GWSB professors Tjai Nielsen and James Bailey discussed their own research into leadership development.

Nielsen, assistant professor of management, said that in leadership development, “wrongness is good.”  He said good leaders allow failure to occur and learn from it.

“Leaders are often afraid to admit they’ve been wrong, but research shows that when they admit failure and highlight what they’ve learned from this, they appear smarter and better.”

“If we want innovation in organizations, one of the worst ways to achieve that is to punish errors,” he added.

Bailey, the Tucker Professorial Fellow of Leadership and professor of management, noted that business leaders who incorrectly think they’re right may still get results.

“If we don’t know our error and we proceed ahead, sometimes we may be successful,” he said.

Posted by gwsb on February 9, 2011 | Filed under: GWSB News.


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