Many high IQ professionals exhibit a specific behavior that helps them early in their careers but hinders them later in their careers.
This behavior is the skill in being right.
When you ask a smart person, “What is 2 + 2?”
They will say, “4.”
If their initial answer was incorrect, then they will learn from their mistakes and improve. The goal is to be right the next time someone asks.
This habit was what led me to do well in school.
But this habit overdone can be a liability.
Let me explain.
As you progress in your career, one of two things happens:
Either you step into leadership roles managing ever larger teams, or you increasingly come into contact with senior-level executives.
In short, your work becomes less about sales, marketing, engineering, or finance, and instead becomes about making decisions that impact people in these functional areas.
In these roles, the desire to be “right” can get in the way of being “effective.”
If your CEO says, “2 + 2 = 7,” there are two ways to respond to that statement. The first is to respond in an ineffective way. The other is to respond in an effective way.
The non-effective way is to say, “You’re wrong. 2+2 certainly does not equal 7. It equals 4.”
While your answer is right (a.k.a., “correct”), it is ineffective because how you phrased your statement disregards the power hierarchy of the organization.
When you challenge the authority of someone in a position of power, they often view that as a threat.
Here are the two offending words… “wrong” and “certainly.”
In most corporate environments, there is only one person that decides whether your work is right or wrong. That person is your boss.
When you tell the CEO they are “wrong,” you are implying that you are their boss, or at least in a position of superiority over them.
This can feel like a challenge.
The word “certainly” has an element of condescension to it. It’s a word choice that is completely unnecessary to fulfill the functional purpose of the message.
Its only function is to put the other person down subtly.
Now if you actually dislike your CEO, think he is an idiot, and are actively working to get him fired, then your communication is an honest one.
However far more often, people who offend others do so unintentionally and without any self-awareness of how their actions are being interpreted by others.
In this example, regardless of intentions, the damage is done.
Either you were intentionally putting the CEO down, or your emotional sophistication was so lacking; either way, you’ve damaged your reputation in the eyes of your CEO.
Now let’s look at the “effective” way to handle the exact same situation.
If your CEO says “2 + 2 = 7,” instead of replying, “You’re wrong. 2 + 2 certainly does not equal 7. It equals 4,” here’s a more effective alternative:
“When I calculate 2 + 2, I get a different answer… four.”
Depending on the individual and relationship, I might ask, “Did I make a mistake?”
(I wouldn’t normally say this for a simple issue like 2 + 2, but if it were more elaborate I might add the “Did I make a mistake?” phrase.)
Let’s look at what words are not in this phrasing. There is no “right/wrong” and no words like “certainly” that escalate the emotional intensity of the exchange.
Now, notice what word does appear in this version… the word “different.” “I get a ‘different’ answer.”
While a superior determines if your work is right or wrong, it is perfectly acceptable for peers and subordinates to have a difference of opinion.
The word “different” is non-judgmental. You’re not saying your opinion is correct and the CEO is incorrect — a kind of judgment. You’re simply stating you get a “different” answer in your calculation.
This phrasing conveys the message without introducing a power dynamic challenge.
You might be wondering, do people really go through all this thought in communicating to others?
The answer is…
This is what happens when you lead other people. Communication occurs at two levels — the technical level and the human level.
If you have ever wondered why people more senior to you are in positions of power despite inferior technical skills, quite often it’s because they possess high emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that you have not yet fully developed.
Most firms hire for technical IQ-type skills. Eventually, the same firms shift towards promoting people for EQ skills.
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