The importance of being wrong

‘If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original’ – Sir Ken Robinson

Recently I was re- watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks on learning and creativity- I’ll click onto these funny, insightful clips when I need a break from my desktop. I’d recommend the clips if you have not seen them; just as you get comfortable with Sir Ken’s laid back humorous tone he’ll change tack and make a point that will challenge your thought process and leave you feeling provoked. He discusses family, education and creativity.

The talks resonate deeply with me as I think about an idea integral to Positive Psychology and the North of Neutral philosophy; the concept of authentic self. It’s a topic that’s been central to many of the conversations I’ve had and the reading I’ve been doing recently around professional satisfaction and effective leadership.

Sir Ken focuses mainly on the education sector in his research; he champions the importance of arts, music and dance programs in schools as a way to help young people explore the passions that could lead to future career success and happiness. He suggests that a more comprehensive educational experience could help us get clearer understanding of our authentic selves not just at home, but in the workplace too.

It’s a fascinating idea to me and as I look at the work of management theorists like John Kotter and Daniel Goleman, I see that the research exists to encourage us to bring our authentic selves to work: We’re aware of the benefits of this in our management style and understand it as a concept. We’ve got tests that help us identify our biases, articles by experts with case studies that help us create a map to implementation, so why don’t we do it? As I think about this question I reflect back on the quote from Sir Ken about the importance of failure. If we truly bring everything we have to the workplace, then we are at risk of showing our flaws to colleagues, reports and clients. It means we need to be prepared to be wrong, to make mistakes and allow others to call us out.

And that seems to be the hardest thing to do at work. Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have identified that deeply held and sometimes unconscious fears about exposing self perceived flaws can impede our ability to perform and lead. As a coach, I’ve worked with many clients who’ve held the same set of concerns and have questioned if managers will truly tolerate imperfection. In my experience, I’ve found that employers at every level are willing to discuss mistakes, in fact, we’ve all been to job interviews armed with responses to the “Tell me about a time you’ve failed” style question. I’ve found that the candidates who’ve been honest about the times they’ve been wrong and who’ve been able to articulate the reasons for their perceived lack of success have been the most compelling; they’ve demonstrated the ability to learn, grow and drive change. It seems that if you are willing to embrace the fear, identify the mistake and reflect on the actions, assumptions and emotional responses that led you to it, you will be able to bring your authentic self to work. You’ll likely be happier and as Sir Ken suggests you’ll to bring the thing to your workplace that employers want most: Originality and innovation.