On Ego and Needing To Be Right

Our need to be right comes at a price: learning and curiosity

By Ken Norton

4 min read • May 15, 2022

Ken Norton

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Our egos desperately want to be right. Or, more accurately, the fear of being wrong causes our egos to want to be right. As leaders, few things feel better than being proven right about something. Even more so when it’s against vehement opposition and your naysayers are forced to swallow their words. “I told you so.”

I, too, suffer from this affliction. Even as I write these words, my own ego wants to smugly reflect on all the times I was right about something against the odds, persisted, and had the satisfaction of being proven correct. “Isn’t this what leadership is all about?” a part of me still asks.

No, it’s not. Because needing to be right comes at a price. That price is learning and curiosity. Our need to be right closes us off, forces us to retreat into a reactive posture, and drives us to protect our egos at all costs, no matter the truth of whatever it is we’re holding onto.

Think of it this way: everything you’ve ever learned came from being willing to be wrong and acknowledging you didn’t know the answer. When you lean into curiosity, you ask, “How might I be wrong? What is to be learned?” If you can’t ask those questions, you never learn.

Here’s a way of thinking that’s helped me free myself from needing to be right. If you are right, the truth doesn’t need your defending. If I’m arguing with someone about whether the earth is round, that fundamental fact of the universe doesn’t need my grandstanding to be true. It just is. The truth will become known. But if I’m wrong about something and holding on to being right about it, that’s where the harm comes in. I’m wanting to be right about something that is not right, and I’m losing out on the opportunity to learn and grow. And as a leader, I’m preventing those around me from learning and growing and setting an example that being right is more important.

It’s pretty straightforward. If you are right, the thing you’re right about doesn’t need your help. And if it turns out you are not right, you definitely don’t want to hold onto being right or you’ll never learn!

One of the most powerful tools for making this shift comes from Byron Katie. She calls this process “The Work.”

Ask yourself these four questions when you’re having a thought that you want to be right about. For example, maybe I’m having an argument with Dana and thinking that “Dana just doesn’t care about our customers.” I’m holding on to being right about that and it’s guiding my thoughts and actions.

I would ask these questions:

1. Is it true? Is it true that Dana doesn’t care about our customers? Be still, and listen for the answer.

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Ultimately, can I really know what Dana does or does not care about? Could I absolutely know with certainty? Is this even a binary fact or might it be more nuanced?

3. How do you react and what happens when you believe that thought? What happens when I believe ‘Dana doesn’t care about our customers’? Do I get angry, judgmental, and frustrated? Do I try to change her in some way?

4. Who would you be without the thought? When I close my eyes and imagine looking at Dana without the thought that ‘Dana doesn’t care about our customers’ what do I see? How might my life be different without that thought?

Then, after you’ve reflected on these questions, perform what Katie calls “the turnaround.” Turn your statement around and ask how the opposite of your story might be equally true.

For example, with “Dana just doesn’t care about our customers,” I can turn it around to:

  • I don’t care about our customers.
  • Dana does care about our customers.
  • Our customers don’t care about Dana.
  • I don’t care about Dana.

Just asking those turnaround questions and wondering how they might possibly be as equally true as my original thought provokes curiosity and helps us let go of needing to be right. I see more gray where previously there was only black and white. Now I can approach the situation with Dana openly, without blame, and eager to learn.

So when you want to be right about something, ask yourself: How might I be wrong? Am I willing to accept that I might be wrong? How can I shift from needing to be right to curiosity?

Some of the above is adapted from The Conscious Leadership Group and Byron Katie International.

Photo by Andrea De Santis

  1. Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership [Self-published, 2015], 53. 

Originally Published: May 15, 2022

This article was originally published to my private newsletter exclusively for executive coaching clients and alumni

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.