About ‘being right’ versus ‘being heeded’

Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash

[De Nederlandse versie van dit verhaal vind je hier]

About 15 years ago, someone I knew left an organisation where they had an advisory role. When they left for another job, at the farewell-party, management said the following: “With [X], it is always about ‘being right versus being listened to’. With hindsight we must conclude that they were often right, and it would have been better for our organisation if they had been listened to more. We are sorry to see them go.”

Recently, I was reminded of that farewell-speech, when I heard a manager warn someone: “It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded”*).

What does that phrase really mean?

The phrase ”It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded” is above all of course a no-brainer. If you as employee distribute your (correct) opinions freely, but nothing comes from them, then their added value is zero. Less than zero, actually, as you are wasting everybody’s time.

But the true meaning of any phrase in natural language is not its literal meaning. The phrase “Fat chance!” for instance, is used in settings where it means the opposite: as a statement expressing that the chance is actually vanishingly small. The same holds for instance for a truism like “enough is enough”.

The meaning of the phrase ”It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded” thus — Uncle Ludwig already told us so — has to be derived from its use.

And then it turns out the phrase is mostly used to explain why an employee — of who it is apparently assumed that they talk sense — is ignored. And the reason for being ignored is laid squarely at the employee’s feet, whose lack (e.g. of communication skills and effectiveness) become the subject.

However justified it is — and it is justified —to lay a responsibility for the heeding of their advice with the employee, it is only half of the story. Because for the ‘advice being heeded’, there needs to be a receiver who wants to pay attention, truly engage, and who can — and potentially wants to — follow that advice. If such a receiving party is not available, the phrase ”It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded” looks a lot like a cheap excuse for ignoring someone, a subject, or an inconvenient truth.

It is of course pretty difficult for a manager to pay attention. Most managers are busy, busy, busy. Attention is much in demand, there is preciously little of it available, and the higher up in the organisation, the scarcer it becomes. So, how top management organises its know how is of a fundamental importance.

What are signals that the problem originates at least partly on the organisation’s side? Here are a few:

  • Critical opinion — that is swept aside by using that phrase about ‘being right’ — is mostly unsolicited. Have enough questions been asked in earlier stages? Have the right employees been asked?
  • There is little understanding of what the advice — that is being swept aside by the phrase about ‘being right’ — is about. To conclude that the problem lies with the messenger is in that case premature. Does the subject get enough real attention of management? Is there enough know how at management level about the subject?
  • The solicited advise that management does get turns out not to help solving the problems, or it seldom requires changes of/by that same management. Is management getting what it likes to hear or what it needs to hear?
  • Employees lack engagement and enthousiasm, or are even critical of what happens, but they do hardly speak up. Management doesn’t hear a lot (just from that lonely employee who gets the phrase thrown at them). Might it be that employees believe that speaking up is useless because there is no chance that they are actually really listened to?

Employees who are critical about changes are often swept aside with the managerial cousin of ‘It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded’, namely the knockdown argument that ‘people are simply against change’. But scientific research**) shows a different aspect: namely that such ‘resistance’ is an above average useful source of information. Of course, this does not mean that any resistance must halt all change, or that all resistance by definition has the best of the organisation in mind (but neither has the change agent), but not valuing it is a risky proposition. Something likewise can be happening when the phrase “It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded” is uttered.

In other words, if you are a manager, and you want to say to a (probably very engaged) employee ‘It’s not about being right, it’s about [your advice] being heeded”, first look in the mirror. There are two sides to this story. Can the other side of ‘being heeded’ — the necessary engagement and know how — reasonably said to be there? Note: that doesn’t mean that every advice must be followed of course, but if the possibility of it being heeded cannot reasonably be said to exist, then uttering that phrase on being heeded or ‘listened to’ might says more about your organisation (or about you) than about the person it is supposed to be about. Use cautiously.

*) Dutch: Het gaat niet om gelijk hebben, maar om gelijk krijgen. ‘Gelijk hebben’ means ‘being right’. ‘Gelijk krijgen’ here means ‘being listened to with the effect of being followed’. An English phrase that conveys the same message could be: “It’s not that you’re wrong, it’s the way that you say it [that makes them ignore you].”
**) Ford et al. 2008. Resistance to change: the rest of the story. Academy of management Review, 2008, Vol. 33, No. 2 362-377
Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash

PS. In the real world, here are an infinite amount of shades of grey here, of course. And I am the last one to argue that relational skills aren’t important. They truly are. But especially because relational skills are so essential, they’re also an aspect that is easily misused in discussion.
PPS. I forgot to digress… 😉
PPPS. Sure, sure, choose your battles and all that…
PPPPS. Just so there is no confusion about this: I personally do not feel ignored, I just feel sorry for critical minds that are being ‘flattened’.
PPPPPS. The amount of unsolicited and the ratio of solicited versus unsolicited advice might constitute an interesting KPI. Not practically measurable, though.
PPPPPPS. OK, I digressed after all… 🤪

Fifty shades of grey

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