Positive Influence Demands a Flexible Ego – February 2022

Some years ago, I had the honor of serving jury duty. The case was made more difficult because, not only was the defendant charged with assault, but the victim was a vulnerable adult (an elderly man with dementia). When the jury was handed the case to deliberate, I was voted Jury Foreperson. I began the deliberations by asking, “How many of you have seen the movie Twelve Angry Men?” Every hand went up. I said, “Great. Let’s not be like the movie.” I took my role seriously. I knew that it was not my job to influence anyone’s decision, but it was my job to make sure no juror exerted undue influence over anyone else. Throughout the process, I learned an unexpected lesson about influence and leadership; how to be wrong.

When we must influence others, we necessarily adopt the role of a leader. No matter what our position or title, for that brief encounter we are the trail guide. The role of leader often comes with the mistaken notion that the leader must be all-knowing and infallible. I began the deliberations thinking that I must be clear in my own thinking about the case, as well as possessed of more knowledge about the law than my fellow jurors. I quickly discovered that both assumptions were not only false, but they weakened my ability to positively influence the group.

When we took our first vote, it was an even split between guilty and not guilty. But only a few people were set in their opinion. They were open to discussion, and willing to change their vote if a compelling argument was made. These people were not seen as weak or indecisive. On the contrary, they appeared more mature. Through them, I learned that the best kind of influence a leader can exert is the ability to admit uncertainty.

As deliberations continued into the second day, the stress mounted. Everyone knew that, if we made a mistake, we could send an innocent person to prison for twenty years, or set a predator free. I initially thought the jury would look to me, the foreperson, for answers, but they didn’t need answers from me, they just needed momentum. As Confucius once said, It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. I didn’t need to have the answers, I just needed to facilitate the discovery of the answers. Most often, the best answer came from someone else in the group. I did not need to know the final destination, I just needed to keep the group moving.

I took copious notes throughout the trial, so I thought I had a pretty good handle on the case, but several times during the deliberations when I referred to my notes, other jurors corrected me; showing where I had misunderstood the testimony. This was a hit to my ego. After all, I was the Foreperson. But the jury didn’t care one whit about my being right. They only cared that I made the process comfortable and productive.

When influencing others, we typically have an end result in mind. This makes it nearly impossible to admit when we are wrong. Admitting that we are wrong risks not getting the result we wanted. I was lucky in that I did not have a personal stake in whether the verdict was guilty or innocent. If I did, I would have been a poor leader and an ineffective influencer. The inability to admit failure or error is tied to what psychologists call psychological rigidity. The thought of being wrong is so damaging to some people’s sense of self that defense mechanisms kick in and their brains actually create alternate storylines to erase their mistake. “I know I said the event was on Thursday, and it was on Wednesday, but someone must have changed the schedule at the last minute.” Some people mistake this type of stubbornness for strength of will, but being psychologically fragile is the opposite of strength.

It is impossible to be both psychologically fragile and a good influencer at the same time. If you find yourself unable to admit fault or error, it is time to examine your sense of self, and learn that strength can sometimes come from the admission of failure.

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