Want to be right? Try humility

Thinking you’re infallible will more than likely get you in trouble


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“Did you get the boat in?”

“Yes, and I’m going up this afternoon to finish putting it together.”

“Are you going to sail?”

“Well, if I get really lucky and get everything done, but it’s supposed to be pretty gusty. That’s not great for a first sail of the year. If there are any problems, it’s better to discover them in light air than in a blow.”

“Yeah, but a seasoned sailor like you … “

“Thank you, but I always try to err on the side of caution. When I used to fly, the instructors always told me humble pilots have a much better chance of survival. The ones who think they’re hot shots are usually the ones that get into trouble.

“In fact, one of my flight instructors died in a plane crash. I walked out to the crash site and looked at the crumbled wreckage. He made several mistakes he had taught me never to do. He was a better, much more experienced pilot than I was. If he could make those errors, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do the same thing in that situation.”

“Wow, did you keep flying?”

“Yes, until it became obvious I wouldn’t be able to become an airline pilot. It’s the fastest way to burn money I’ve ever found. Too expensive for a hobby, but a great way to make a living.

“I’ve won a lot of races, and people think I’m a good sailor. I’m glad they think so, but I try not to believe it. It keeps me trying to get better. I have a healthy respect for the weather, and I’m not as young as I used to be. I think humble sailors, like humble pilots, get into a lot less trouble.”

“As long as you put it that way, it makes sense.”

“I try to carry that philosophy into everything I do. When I think I’ve got everything figured out is usually when I get into trouble. If I design or develop something, let’s try it out before we make a bunch of them. Does it work? Is there anything we can do to improve it? When you’re troubleshooting, they want the fix to work all the time.”

“You’re right, I try to do the same thing.”

“A few years ago, I was asked to develop a presentation on the things you might want to know before moving operations offshore for a group of CEOs. I tried to include most of the snafus that would have deterred them, if they had only known about them in advance.

“To make sure I had it right, I got myself invited to do the presentation for local chapters of APICS (American Production & Inventory Control Society) and ASQ (American Society for Quality). These are the folks in the trenches supporting such operations. They were the acid test, so to speak, and their nodding approvals and applause assured me I was on the right track.

“Now, this is not the opposite of being self-confident. It’s trying to be confident in oneself and one’s ability without becoming arrogant. None of us is infallible, and the people who are sure they’re always right are often the ones we can’t stand. On the other hand, those who are always trying to learn, especially from those around them, tend to become quite popular.

“I’ve done a lot of troubleshooting. Whether you’re in manufacturing, financial services or just about anywhere else, the first thing you’re likely to discover is the process documentation is not always right. The second thing is what management thinks is going on is not usually what’s happening.

“You have to rely on the people to share their ‘local knowledge,’ the things that make the process work that just aren’t documented anywhere. Oftentimes the answer comes from the least likely sources, someone in the trenches that nobody wants to have anything to do with.

“Have you ever solved a problem, implemented the solution and discovered you still had the problem? It’s fairly common. A little humility can help you get to the bottom of what’s really going on and develop a solution that really works.”

“Well, Ron, this locker room discussion is probably more insightful than anything I’m likely to run into today. The people who shave at home all by themselves don’t know what they’re missing.”

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.

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