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 looking for perspective in tragedy

As Steve wrote last week, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “risk” in our work. And so, as Rewire’s “R&D Fonzi” (my unofficial title), I get to plow headfirst into whatever I can get my hands on that will help individuals and teams understand how risk is impacting their work. I’ve gotten to spend hours and hours reading and thinking about things like judgement heuristics, game theory, prospect theory, etc. Eventually, I’ll bring my findings to the team and we’ll construct training workshops, team-building exercises, and tools for clients to use in order to turn a specific approach to risk into a competitive advantage for their work.

This is far and away my favorite part of my work — the process of diving into the deep end of the research and working with it until it becomes a force for growth in the work of individuals and companies.


And so, today’s Wireboard article is my attempt to look up from my books for a minute, pick out one simple finding from my research so far and share it with you all.  Here it is:

Most of us don’t do well with risk and decision-making because we don’t understand what failure - or “being wrong” - actually is.

Because of the Lizard Brain, we associate “being right” with survival. And this is fine and good (If you want to chat about how a psychological process of assuming one’s rightness correlates with survival, feel free to drop me a line. For now, we’ll just assume it.). The problem comes when we assume that the converse is also always true.  The thinking goes: “if being right is correlated with survival, then being wrong is correlated with death.”


And therein lies the problem. We think that failure — being wrong — always equals death at some level. So we fight hard to avoid losses — even shunning opportunities for success and growth if there is risk of being wrong involved. We’ll treat situations with no life-or-death implications as though our very lives depend on avoiding being wrong.

  • We say “no” to projects that could move our business forward.
  • We argue for our ideas in team meetings when someone else’s is as good or better.
  • We damage our closest relationships by digging-in and refusing to admit when we’re wrong — or at least meet the other person half-way

But if we can rewire this thinking that “being wrong equals death,” we can reap some phenomenal rewards in our work:

  • Failure in small areas allows us to identify what we can actually live with and what we can’t. If we follow this “being-wrong-equals-death” pattern of thought to its conclusion, we’ll make bigger and bigger concessions just to avoid the possibility of failure. But, if we can periodically accept some amount of failure, we demystify it so that we can look at it more rationally and personally. And this self-knowledge will be massively important for future decisions we’ll have to make where success is not guaranteed.
  • Periodic failure gives us valuable feedback that we can’t get any other way. In my research on risk, I’ve been reading a lot of books on playing cards.  Most of the good players — the really good ones you see sitting at the final table in a tournament — absolutely embrace being wrong from time to time. Why? Because the experience of being wrong gives them information on their environment: How do other players respond to their call on a hand? What about a bluff? What about players who folded earlier? What does their body language say? Failure tells them about the shape of the field they’re in. The really good players will use this feedback to inform their future choices. The same is true of our work.
  • Allowances for “being wrong” is a requirement of high-performance culture. This last one is specifically for teams, organizations and leaders. If you want an environment where people give their best creative solutions, they need to be able to voice ideas that might not work under further scrutiny. The same goes for collaboration.  If team environment is such that people feel like their professional lives are on the line (being right = survival), then opening up to others becomes far too risky to do in any meaningful way and collaboration becomes nominal at best (if it continues at all).

Do you have any thoughts about “being wrong?” Any questions about how to pick your times and places to risk being wrong?  Hit me up in the comments!