It is better to be explicit and wrong than to be vague

One of my favourite quotes from Strunk and White is, “Don’t compound ignorance with inaudibility.” While it is wise to not say anything if you’ve got nothing nice to say, at least in some circumstances, remaining silent just because you don’t know what you’re talking about benefits no one. You need to be open to correction, and if you don’t ask questions or share your views, you’ll never be able to grow.

We need to get over our fear of being wrong. If we don’t, we’ll never learn enough to be right.

“An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption.”

-Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month

Have you ever been a member of a committee that couldn’t make a decision? Or have you waited forever for your boss to make the call so you knew what direction to go? Maybe you’ve been that boss, and you can identify with the stress of trying to make a decision without having all the information you’d like to have.

In my experience, what paralyzes us from speaking our mind or making a decision is that we’re afraid we’ll be wrong. If we are wrong, people might not respect us as much, or the task at hand may be done incorrectly. And if we’re uncertain but feel the pressure to say or do something, anything, then we may try to hedge our bets and be vague. We’ll try to maintain some plausible deniability.

It is better to be concrete and to be open with our thoughts. If you don’t know the best course, admit it and get feedback, but then make the call. Be willing, if it turns out that your decision was wrong, to admit that you were wrong, and be open to change.

This isn’t a comfortable role to step into, but I’ve found it to be incredibly freeing and empowering. I have become very comfortable making decisions, and if the decision I make is wrong, I’ll accept the consequences of that. I have found it better to be decisive and occasionally wrong. And most of the time, it turns out that there was no truly wrong decision, nor a truly right decision. What was important was that we moved forward.

Once, several years ago, an employee of mine made the wrong decision. He wasn’t sure what was right to do, so he effectively did nothing and well over a hundred desktop computers became unusable because of this. He was afraid to ask for help because he worried it would make him look like he couldn’t handle the situation on his own, and he didn’t want to bring the problem to my attention because he was insecure about our relationship. Once it became clear that his strategy wasn’t working, he was at a loss and withdrew from the situation altogether.

When confronted with challenging or frightening situations, like having a lot of equipment stop working, it can be difficult to truly think clearly. We feel that if we are explicit about the problem, even in the privacy of our own mind, the problem will somehow become more real than it was before and will then be inescapable. Our thoughts stay vague, with no clear path out of the problem, and we’re frozen in place.

The only true way out of a challenging situation is to move, and that takes explicit and decisive thought and action. Even if we’re wrong, we’re moving, and we can keep moving. By being wrong, we’ve eliminated a possibility, and we can move forward into something that might be right. But more often than not, by being explicit and thoughtful in the first place, we’ll be right and will have achieved our solution that much faster.

When two paths diverge, which should you take? At the end of all things, it hardly matters, so long as you take one of them.

For further reading, see The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. The latter won’t help you with management so much as with writing, but I still think it’s a great book.

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