You Can Be Right or You Can Be Successful


I recently had lunch with one of my friends and we spoke about some issues that one of his teams was having. As a new team, they were still in the storming and norming stages and they were having some fairly heated discussions around some philosophical issues of software development. For those not familiar with software development you might think there is not really anything to get all worked up about, in which case you would be surprised at the level of intensity some folks have. The discussions the team was having bordered on “a holy war” and there appeared to be little hope for compromise.

I asked my friend a simple question, “would you rather be right or be successful?” This question is one I like to use and is a variation of the quote “you can be right or you can be happy” which I have, until I did the research for this blog, incorrectly attributed to Dr. Phil McGraw (for those who care, the quote is from Gerald Jampolsky). Basically, there are times when we can be right and we can be happy but often we have to make a choice. The same applies to success at work. There are times when we can have it all, but sometimes we need to choose whether we wish to be right or effective.

Recently there has been an outbreak of measles in the United States due to the fact that some parents have not been vaccinating their children. The reason these parents were not vaccinating was due to false science that has since been refuted. In other words, the truth is unequivocal; vaccines do not cause the reactions that anti-vaccination parents fear. These parents are 100% wrong.

Since these parents are 100% wrong and not vaccinating children can lead to adverse health issues in the community, it makes sense that public health officials would try to change the minds of the “anti-vaxxer” parents. They did try. Their first approach was to try and convince the parents by presenting the scientific facts. They theorized that by knowing the true facts, people would make the correct decisions. That effort failed. It seems that merely presenting facts did not change peoples’ minds.

succes04If presenting facts does not work, public health officials concluded the reason for the resistance was emotional and that emotional arguments would be more effective in convincing parents to vaccinate their children. That effort failed as well. (For a more details analysis see

This was surprising. Furthermore, not only are people not convinced by facts or emotion, but that when presented with factual or emotional arguments, the anti-vaxxer parents in the study were LESS likely to vaccinate their children. Evidence suggests that once someone has a strong belief in something, anything (or anyone) contradictory to that belief is seen as a threat. People who are threatened will cease to listen, much like a child will put a finger in their ears. People will erect walls to keep you out.

Knowing this, should we just give in to despair? Of course not. We need to stop trying to be right, whether presenting factual or emotional arguments, and concentrate more on being successful. The question is – what works in convincing people with strong beliefs to change their position? There is something that has been shown to work, something that lowers peoples’ walls and defenses and that thing is listening.

Instead of telling or implying people are wrong, we need to take the time to ask them about their position. We need to stop threatening them. Given the space to explain their position, people will not only feel less threatened, but also they will have to defend their own position and when tasked with defending their own position, people will slowly be able to see that they might not be the experts they think they are. This is where the walls and defenses are lowered so that other arguments might be entertained and listened too. Furthermore, showing respect to individuals and spending time with them will also make it more difficult to not listen. We listen to our friends not our antagonists.

A study of midwives in India found that arguments did not work with them either. What did work was “the rule of seven touches” which marketers know well. You must have meaningful contact and get to know someone (seven touches) before they are willing to trust and listen to you.

succes03This applies to my work of transforming companies from waterfall to agile approach. While I may be 100% correct and it may make me feel good to be right, by presenting my viewpoint as THE way, I will not meet my objective. If I choose to be successful then I must take a different approach. I need to get to know the people involved, understand their concerns, not threaten their ideas, but allow their defenses to be lowered by listening to their ideas and then, and only then, if my ideas are truly right will I have the chance to convince them of or, better yet, guide them to the truth.

In the end you can be right or you can be successful. You can’t always be both.