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Are You Right or Not? How Do You Know?

April 20, 2011

When you take a particular stance in a meeting or with a colleague or subordinate, how do you know you are right? Aside from smiles or conversely the rolling of eyes and gagging, I mean how do you really know.

Actually, a group of psychologists, which is called a gaggle I think, figured out that people decide whether they are right or wrong along a continuum (which is a fancy name for line and a name highly prized by psychologists since it is used so often). On the left side of the line (no references to politics) are those who know they are correct about most anything. They KNOW they are right because of their intelligence, personality, experience, charm and good looks. This is called INTERNAL ATTRIBUTION, which is another one of those big words, which means you know what you know and you KNOW it. People who think like this don’t know they are wrong even when they are which of course can get them into trouble particularly with husbands, wives and teenage children. If they’re right, they can take an organization to new heights. If wrong, they can take the company down. Get the picture?

On the right side of the line is EXTERNAL ATTRIBUTION these are the people who know they are right or wrong only when someone tells them. They wait for others to comment or give nods, winks, or other approvals. They want and need a sign (like – good job, New Jersey turnpike next right). They want to be liked and will do stuff to gain approval even if it means compromising their own beliefs.

Here’s a summary:

Extreme Internal Attribution Extreme External Attribution
  • Will fight to death for an idea – often your death.
  • Unwilling to compromise since they know they are right.
  • Does not plot revenge. No need to because they will take you out in the moment.
  • Can drive an organization to success if indeed they are right but can plow it into the ground if they are not.
  • They give up easily on an idea if others show disagreement or even gas pains.
  • Will echo what others have to say for fear of disagreeing.
  • Will roll over on an idea in the moment but plot serious revenge for later.
  • Are often very sympathetic and can add a lot to the organization if they can keep their jobs.

All right now that we have summarized several psychology books in 3 paragraphs and a not so pretty chart and insulted a whole field of study what does this mean?

In my work with executives and leaders, I have found that the best are somewhere in the middle of the continuum having characteristics of internal as well as external attributions. They are forceful having good ideas but seek wise counsel (as opposed to wise guy counsel) to help them understand what gets in their way of influence and success.

So…. What do you do?

WWFM (What works for Me). My business partner tends to be on the internal attribution side which gets him in trouble with clients some times. I tend to be more external which keeps me from being more successful. We’ve agreed to help each other by pointing out when we act in our extreme areas. Signs, symbols, single digit fingers and hammers work well. He has agreed to ask me if I am taking a position just to be liked and I agreed to tell him when I think he is uncompromising.

Move to the middle. Here is some great advice I received from a friend:

  • Be confident in what you know and be unafraid to speak your mind.
  • Know what you don’t know – don’t pretend to know (Others can smell fear). Seek advice to help you understand.
  • Above all be a seeker of knowledge particularly when you suspect you don’t know that you don’t know. Like bad breath, many times everyone else knows we have our challenges and when asked will tell us. So seek feedback, seek trusted mentors and coaches who can be fully honest with you.