Assumptions in interpersonal communication: Is it better to be right or to be effective?

Preface: Martin Prouix, President of Pyxis and an organizational coach, posted this article on his blog, Analytical-Mind.com, this past fall. For years, I have asked students, people I coach, and sometimes even myself whether they would rather be right or effective.  Martin poses essentially the same question by asking, “is it better to be right or to be helpful.” His example on what can go wrong when trying to build effective relationships is worth sharing.

Jean

Timmy’s story: Is it better to be right or to be helpful?

by Martin Prouix

Would you rather be right or be helpful?

This is the story of Timmy, a highly talented university graduate. After spending 4 years completing a university degree in Computer Science at a well-recognized school and over a year working on internal projects within his firm, Timmy was sent off as a consultant to help an organization in need.

Timmy quickly realized that he was more knowledgeable, more competent, more skilled, and harder working than most software developers on his new team. Whenever an issue would come up, Timmy knew the answer much before everyone else.

After a few days, Timmy realized the sad state of affairs within his client’s software development organization and in trying to help his new colleagues, he started dispensing recommendations as if they were candies on Halloween night.

Every time Timmy noticed something that wasn’t done properly or as per the theory he had mastered, he would immediately point it out. Every time a colleague would run into an issue, Timmy would quickly point out the source of the issue and the solution to fix it. Every time Timmy noticed a team-mate slack off, he would tell others on the team. Timmy knew he was right – pretty much all the time.

Needless to say, Timmy was not well liked by his team mates. On the other hand, Timmy didn’t like his consulting mandate either and within a few days, Timmy asked his firm to pull him off the mandate.

Despite Timmy’s capabilities and the obvious need of his new team, the conflicts between him and his colleagues grew quickly every day. After a few weeks Timmy had enough. He couldn’t understand why nobody saw that he was right, that he had the answer to all their questions, and that they wouldn’t have any problem if only they would listen to him.

Feeling so frustrated by the situation, Timmy showed up at his firm’s office one morning asking for help. “Can someone tell me what is going on?” he cried out.

A senior consultant who immediately saw the distress on Timmy’s face, gladly offered to help. He explained to Timmy that although he was a competent technical resource, Timmy failed to realize a few key elements of consulting:

  • Timmy hadn’t made sure to clarify the reason he was hired. Clarifying the expectations was necessary to avoid possible confusion around the role he was to play;
  • Nobody likes to feel they are inferior to others – especially not to consultants. If Timmy wanted his suggestions to be accepted, he would need to use a softer approach, some humility, and a lot of patience;
  • People do not accept suggestions – let alone recommendations – from others unless they have established their credibility;
  • Team mates are not likely to accept input unless they actually ask for it;
  • Timmy needs to ask himself if he believes it is better for him and for his client to be right.

Do you know anyone who is like Timmy?

Orignally posted by Martin Proux on 12/15/2009 at http://analytical-mind.com//?s=better+to+be+right+or+helpful with permission.

Martin Proux is President of Pyxis, a software development consulting and coaching firm located in Canada.  The firm “helps software development companies to become places where results, quality of life, and fun coexist sustainably by being first and foremost an example of what it proposes to its clients and by coaching them.”  Pyxis is one of the few organizations that I have heard about that successfully use self-managing rather than hierarchically organized teams to get their work done.

 

4 Comments

  1. Carole Marmell

    Reply

    This is a tough one to acknowledge, because it’s about me. How does one offer helpful suggestions while avoiding being labeled as a smart-ass?

    • Jean L.

      Reply

      This is a great question. In a nutshell, I would say it depends on the kinds of questions one asks.

      Would you be willing to provide an example of a situation in which you were trying to be helpful and you suspect you came off as a smart-ass instead? You can change the names/situation/location, etc. The proper nouns don’t matter. What matters is the story — how the whole thing unfolded.

      • Carole Marmell

        Reply

        I would prefer to hear ideas and opinions from some of your readers before putting myself out there. Keep in mind that I’ve always considered myself to be good at systems, and therefore good at pointing out where processes should be done differently. Even when I’m right, it generally doesn’t go over well. (Maybe especially when I’m right.)

        Is it presentation? Does it feel like criticism when someone thinks of something you haven’t considered? I’m hoping someone can nail this for me.

  2. Reply

    Would I want someone’s help or suggestion? Usually I would say yes, but in the situation described it would rub me the wrong way. Why? Because Timmy sounds like a know-it-all and probably would make me feel like I’m incompetent, or even worse, just plain dumb. I would be on a complete defensive, not even listening to what he had to say.

    Timmy was also an outsider who came in to an already established structure where everyone was used to doing something a certain way, and he suggested all these new changes. If his delivery was a little more humble all of his suggestions might have been easier to swallow.

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