Self-righteousness can sometimes be hard for us to fully understand and own up to.
Many of us are quite opinionated and will happily share our thoughts openly. The issue isn’t with our opinions or even our willingness to express them passionately; it’s the self-righteousness with which we hold our opinions that can be problematic.
When we hold an opinion with self-righteousness, whether we express it or not, we’re coming from a place of being right. And if I’m right about something and you don’t agree with me, what does that make you?
Now we have a problem.
Self-righteousness separates us from others. In certain relationships, situations, and environments, we might be open and honest enough with other people to let them know directly that we think they’re wrong. We might be able to say straight to their face something like, “I think that’s a bad idea!”
But, more often than not, and especially at work, we bite our tongue in such situations, especially if there is a lack of trust in our relationship with the person or a lack of psychological safety within the group.
We may say, “Thanks for your input; I’ll take that into consideration.” And then we might find someone else we’re close with, and say, “There’s no way we’re doing that!” And then, we’ll continue to find others who agree with us and we’ll gather evidence for why we’re right and those who don’t see it “our way” are wrong.
Self-righteousness negatively impacts us, our relationships, and our teams. It also undercuts our ability to influence those around us and fundamentally damages relationships and trust.
Identifying self-righteousness can be challenging because often when you and I are being self-righteous, we don’t think we’re being self-righteous, we just think we’re right. It takes quite a bit of self-awareness to notice our self-righteousness, and it takes willingness and maturity to let it go, or to at least look at things from a different perspective.
Removing self-righteousness does not mean watering down our opinions, decreasing our passion, or withholding our feedback. Believing strongly in our opinions, as well as in our values and beliefs about life, work, and everything else, is important. However, understanding the difference between conviction and self-righteousness is essential.
When we’re coming from a place of conviction about something, we believe it to be true and we’re willing to speak up about it, to defend our position, or to engage in healthy dialogue or debate about it.
Communicating with conviction is essential to building strong and trusting relationships with those around us, and with having healthy discussions and debates within our team. Being able to discuss things this way is one of the most important benefits of having psychological safety. Psychological safety is essentially group trust, and is necessary for any team that wants to have a strong culture and to perform at a high level.
As Harvard Business School professor and author Amy Edmondson told me when I had her on my podcast, “Psychological safety is not about being ‘nice’ or even about creating ‘safe spaces’ where everyone feels comfortable all the time. It’s about having enough trust, respect, and courage to engage with each other in a way that allows everyone to do their best work.”
Conviction, however, is also about having the humility, awareness, and maturity to consider we might be wrong—or that, at the very least, there may be other ways to look at whatever it is we’re discussing or debating, even if we don’t see it that way ourselves.
When we cross over into self-righteousness, we’re no longer interested in hearing what anyone else has to say if they disagree with us or have a different perspective. We’re right and anyone and everyone who doesn’t see it our way is wrong. This often shuts down the discussion and can create an intense “Us vs. Them” dynamic that negatively impacts everyone involved, the team, and won’t allow for real authenticity or psychological safety.
Self-righteousness separates us from those who don’t think like we do or hold the same ideas, opinions, or beliefs. At work this leads to disconnection, unresolved conflicts, and factions within teams and organizations, especially these days. Lines get drawn between departments, offices, regions, and levels within the company, making it more difficult to make decisions, collaborate, and get things done in a psychologically safe and effective way.
The natural human response to self-righteousness is defensiveness, which is why when we’re being self-righteous it’s almost impossible to influence others. If we want to connect with those around us in a real way, and create an environment of authenticity, trust, collaboration, and, most specifically, psychological safety, we must be willing to recognize, own, and remove our self-righteousness. Conviction is healthy and important. Self-righteousness is damaging and destructive.
What can you do to remove your self-righteousness and shift it to healthy conviction? Leave your thoughts, ideas, and questions below in the comments.
* This is an excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published in paperback by Hay House Business, March 2022