How to Work with Someone Who Thinks They’re Always Right

From The Harvard Business Review:

We recently watched a heated debate between our client and two of his direct reports. Our client, a leader responsible for a $350M division, and one of the direct reports, the head of marketing, were ready to extend an offer to a candidate for a new position: VP of analytics. But the head of HR was adamant that they had the wrong candidate. Her reasoning, expressed with unyielding conviction, was that the candidate didn’t meet the “adaptability” dimension of the hiring profile, which for her, was a deal-breaker. The leader and the head of marketing felt like while this candidate was admittedly imperfect, she was the best they’d seen of the nearly 40 they’d interviewed, and they were willing to live with her shortfalls. After rounds of discussion, the HR lead played the ultimate trump card and said, “Look, you either want my expertise or you don’t. You made me your head of HR, and if you’re not going to take my advice, then why did you give me this job?”

In a private conversation, our client expressed his frustration. “She plays that card the minute she fears not getting her way. She’s smart and I value her advice, but she has to be right on every decision. As her boss, now I feel like I’m in a no-win situation. If I don’t take her advice, she feels marginalized. If I do take her advice, I reinforce behavior I don’t want used by my team in order to sway decisions their way.”

His predicament isn’t unusual. Many people suffer from “chronic certainty” on issues for which no perfect answer exists. Here are three ways we’ve seen leaders get underneath chronic certainty to help themselves and others broaden their perspective — and have more productive conversations.

. . . .

Get behind the origins of chronic certainty. Cognitive biases come in many forms, and often underlie dogmatic viewpoints. In our client’s situation, the newly appointed HR leader had an overconfidence bias because in her previous job she had a track record of great hiring decisions. Her confidence was coming, not from a place of defensiveness or posturing, but from her desire to repeat past success. When you or someone you manage experiences chronic certainty, it’s important to figure out which biases may be in play. Staunch certainty is always rooted in deeply held, but often unconscious, beliefs.

. . . .

Consider how your organization might encourage certainty. Chronic certainty is not just an individual issue. Psychologists often use the PIE theory (Person In Environment) to understand individual social struggles in the context of the environments shaping them. Does your culture prize assertive convictions? Is decision making perceived to be competitive? Do people feel as though appearing uncertain about their views will be perceived as weak? In certain situations, like conversations around strategic planning, budgeting, and talent management, where people perceive a lot to be at risk, the need to appear certain becomes a matter of survival. Research on competitive workplaces shows that when people feel anxious about competitive processes, they are more likely to behave unethically — including embellish arguments to get their way.

. . . .

Acknowledge if others’ certainty makes you resistant. For some, the convictions of others can feel threatening to our own views and values. Confirmation bias leads us to screen out disconfirming views, so when we are forced to contend with differences, we naturally resist. We can become overly defensive, or withdrawn, dismissing information that might be very important. We observed one client, let’s call him Mike, making a presentation to his boss and peers intended to confirm his significant budget increase. One of his colleagues, someone with whom he had a contentious relationship, raised legitimate criticisms about the size of the increase given a recent product quality issue. Because Mike was pre-disposed to believe anything this colleague said was ill motivated, he shut down the conversation. But his overly defensive response backfired, and led to their boss delaying the budget approval for “further consideration.” Had Mike engaged his colleague’s concerns, he may well have negotiated an approval with contingencies in it that would have allowed him to proceed.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

For the record, PG acknowledges that he sometimes exhibits chronic certainty.

But he could be wrong.

5 thoughts on “How to Work with Someone Who Thinks They’re Always Right”

  1. If it’s your boss document everything (and BCC emails when the request/demands get way out there.)

    Far too many ‘always right’ types are always right because they’ve set up fall guys/gals for when they are wrong.

  2. The part I’m having trouble getting past is that the HR lady even has a say to begin with. The hiring managers should be the people who are actually going to oversee and work with the hiree, not the people who have zero connection or experience in relation to the hiree’s potential job.

    HR is supposed to help with the legal stuff: “No, you can’t ask them about their religion, or if they have kids, or are planning to get married.”

    Also, the lady has confused “advice” with “command.” She said her piece (for whatever it was worth), now she should let it go.

    Acknowledge if others’ certainty makes you resistant.

    In this example, it sounds as if Mike’s coworker entered BEC territory with him. I make a point of refusing to complain about an annoying coworker (AC) to other coworkers. Otherwise, allied coworkers would only reinforce my dislike of the AC by venting their complaints. That risks the AC becoming the BEC, and nothing good comes of that outcome. Never let it get that far.

  3. You made me your head of HR, and if you’re not going to take my advice, then why did you give me this job?

    I once was asked a similar question. My answer was, “Because I made a mistake.” Silence.

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