We have all come across people who just need to be right. Given that this is not a rare behaviour pattern to encounter, it should be worthwhile asking the question why this happens and what you as, say, the person’s manager, could do about it.

In order to understand what is going on we need to take a little detour into how learning works and how we map our internal reality (our model of the world) onto the external reality (be it ‘objective’ reality or someone else’s subjective reality). Big words, I know, but bear with me.

I have written earlier how reflection is a necessary prerequisite for learning, but in itself a lack of reflection doesn’t go far enough to explain why some people fail to realise that they may be wrong. Reflection happens within the context of your own (constructed) reality, your model of the world. For that reflection to yield useful insights applicable to a different – external – reality, you need to be able to distinguish the two in the first instance. This may sound self-evident or trivial, but it really isn’t because our ability to do this evolves with our cognitive development as we mature.

The main impact is that if I can’t distinguish between internal and external reality – i.e. if for me there is no difference between my model of the world and the world – then I cannot distinguish between beliefs and facts. Beliefs are obviously equivalent to facts in this case, because facts are what is true and in my world my beliefs are true and because my world IS the world, all my beliefs are necessarily facts. If this sounds like a closed loop to you, you are right, it is.

The extent to which we fall into this trap is dependent on the level of cognitive development you have reached. In a previous blog post I introduced the Leadership Development Framework, which is the best available tool to measure the level of cognitive development in individuals. The connection here is that if someone operates primarily from the Expert level, they are much more likely to (con)fuse internal and external reality and fall into the trap of needing to be right.

Experts rely on knowledge and expertise for their professional identity and hence invest large amounts of time and mental effort into perfecting their model of the world. The model they construct is usually narrow in scope, relies on logic and excludes ‘non-objective’ sources of information such as feelings and intuition. For an Expert being right can hence become essential to maintaining their professional identity – if my model of the world is right, then I am right and then my identity is secure.

Experts make great individual contributors, but are usually poor managers. They always know better. Can’t let go of the detail and tend to interfere in their subordinates’ work. They also struggle with any serious shift in the external conditions under which the organisation operates or with significant internal change. In fact, with anything that might challenge their carefully constructed model of the world.

So how do you get someone past this hurdle and past their constructed reality? Well obviously they need to learn to pay attention to the world outside the bounds of their reality. Yet their default style of learning is dedicated to perfecting their model of the world They tend to become ultra-efficient within its bounds, but can’t learn anything new that would require looking at their own assumptions and beliefs. This perfecting of their model of the world is known as single-loop learning.

single-loop learning

Only engaging in single-loop learning has a couple of implications for people:

  • They can’t learn anything truly new (outside or inconsistent with their current model of the world).
  • They usually attempt to think their way to a new way of doing things, a new behaviour. They want to know how to do it before they even try.

In short, they resist double-loop learning, which requires you to question your underlying assumptions, values and beliefs (your model of the world). Only by engaging in this style of learning will you to realise that it is your current inability to contemplate or use behaviours outside of what you are familiar with and proficient at, that could get you the results you seek. In contrast, the Expert will tend to ‘just try harder’ – use their familiar behaviour with greater intensity and expect to get a different result.

Which leaves the question of how you can get an Expert to adopt double-loop learning. This is unfortunately not trivial, as their professional identity is wrapped up in being right. We all go to great length to protect our identity and Experts are especially adept at blaming others or circumstance when things don’t work out to plan.

The way out is not arguing with them (which is pointless), it is putting them into a different reality where they have to adapt theirs to not fail. A reality where their expert knowledge is of next to no use, where instead they have to learn to pay attention to other people and realise that other peoples’ models of the world may have value and be valid. This needs to be within a professional context, or the professional identity will remain unaffected.

A handful of MBA programs are constructed in a way that supports this transition from Expert to Achiever. You can also second them for 6-12 months into a completely different part of the organisation where they are forced to collaborate to be successful in a project they can’t control. More generically, engineering a long-term situation where their expertise is of limited use, where collaborating with others is essential and where someone facilitates double-loop learning opportunities helps most people who are ready for this transition to make it.