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What’s negative one squared (-12)? If you learned math in school before 2009, you probably said “1.” If you learned math once the Common Core was implemented, you would say the answer is “-1.” A friend of mine spent an entire 4-day weekend visit with his family arguing about the answer to this problem, trying to prove he was right. When he returned and I asked him how his trip was, he continued his tirade on me. Even after I agreed with him, he persisted to prove that he was right to the point where I made up an excuse to leave because I was tired of hearing about it.
Do you ever find yourself so caught up in proving that you’re right that you end up alienating everyone around you? I hear this a lot when I’m coaching technical people. Of course, they don’t use those words. They say things like, “people don’t understand my enthusiasm” or “I don’t understand why people are so sensitive” or “some of the people on my team are not that smart.” Those who are more forgiving to the people around them say something like, “I just can’t help myself” or “I have to be right; I mean, it’s so important to be right in your work, isn’t it?”
Let’s stop right there because that brings up a very important question. When is it essential to be right and when is it better to let it go? We all know that with family or with a significant other, we have to let it go sometimes to keep peace in the relationship. The same holds true at work. Yet, sometimes it’s harder to do it there. Why is that?
Usually we argue for our position at work because we feel we’re hired for our knowledge or expertise and we need to prove that we’re right to prove our value to the team. But sometimes, the relationship is more important. In fact, quite often, that’s true. Research shows better work relationships lead to greater employee engagement, organizational loyalty, job satisfaction, productivity, and prosocial behavior. Strong relationships also help people get things done faster, more efficiently, and more collaboratively.
You can still be right, but do it in a diplomatic fashion, and don’t keep telling people you’re right. It’s also okay to disagree sometimes. There are many ways to disagree without damaging a relationship. You can say “I can see how you’d see things differently from your perspective” or “I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement right now so let’s agree to disagree” or “you have some really good points and I’d like for us both to give this some more thought before making a decision.”
Sometimes there is no right answer, like with the Common Core math example. We all learned in school that (-1) x (-1) = +1. The difference is, that with Common Core math, they follow a different order of operations than people did previously. Whereas older people were taught to keep the negative number intact and break up (-12) into (-1) x (-1), younger people were taught to break up “-1” into (-1) x (1). They use the PEMDAS order of operations, which is parentheses-exponents-multiplication-division-addition-subtraction and, since exponents come before multiplication, the problem becomes 12 x (-1) which equals “-1.” So that’s how you get the difference and the answer is there are two correct answers.
For most technical people, it’s hard to believe there can be two opposing correct answers to a math problem. We, engineers, for example, are used to thinking in binary, in black and white, right and wrong. But there are two right answers out there and we have to find a way to mutually respect that we can solve things in different ways and it still works. And there’s no sense in arguing about it.