Managers: Are You Too Afraid of Being Wrong?


We all know some businesses possess a secret sauce that fuels their success. Why do other businesses, with seemingly talented leadership and great product ideas, fail to thrive? Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman suggests that part of the problem is managers need to develop their critical thinking skills.

How Fear Holds Us Back

In a Knowledge@Wharton radio show, Zaltman pitched his new book, "Unlocked — Keys to Improve Your Thinking." Zaltman recognizes that we live in a world of information overload. That condition leads many of us to focus on what’s coming at us through our desktop computers. Unfortunately, we simultaneously ignore our “neck-​top” computer, as Zaltman puts it. We’re often in the position to react to what we’re seeing and hearing, instead of assertively thinking about what to do and then taking action.

The fear of being wrong also drives a good deal of conservative decision- making by managers. If we make a decision that ultimately costs the organization revenue or increases expenses, we’re putting our jobs and livelihood at risk. That’s why many managers make the same decisions over and over again.

Senior leadership often reinforces this kind of managerial behavior. After we’ve worked with company leaders for a while, we know how to interpret their cues. A wrinkled nose or an eye-​roll during a conversation can be enough to drive us and any new idea we want to float by the higher-​ups right back into our cubicle. We’ll quickly conclude that suggesting change is not worth the risk to our reputations. In these conditions, managers may move up the ladder, but the business and any chance at critical thinking stagnates.

Embrace Curiosity and Risk-Taking

Successful change leaders like Andrew Carnegie and Steve Jobs didn’t let the fear of failure or being wrong hold them or their companies back. They kept trying new ideas until they succeeded. They also drew upon another ingredient that is often stifled because of the fear of being wrong: curiosity. “We’re afraid to find out things that contradict us,” states Zaltman. If we are brave enough and take the time to dig into exactly what we are seeing in terms of a changing business market, our curiosity will lead us to develop new and innovative solutions. We will learn to use our critical thinking skills and become change-leaders.