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wrongMany years ago, I worked for a human resources director who told me it was better to be stupid than wrong. If I didn’t know something, I shouldn’t volunteer an opinion. I should admit that I didn’t know the answer rather than risk offering an incorrect piece of advice.

Turns out, nobody knows anything during the first few months on the job. I took my director’s advice to heart and often responded to questions by saying, “I don’t know. I’ll find out.”

Like a parrot.

It was fine until one of my colleagues in IT told my boss that he really loved me; however, I always seemed unsure of myself. He wondered why I wasn’t brave enough to take a risk.

So my HR director took me to lunch and gave me this feedback. I was embarrassed and thought she would be mad, but she congratulated me for following her instructions. She trusted me to continue to use good judgment.

Better to be safe than wrong.

But I was disappointed in myself. That was the last time I ever said, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.”

Instead, I started saying, “I’m not sure. I’m still learning things around here. I’ll look it up, but here’s what I think.”

I can’t be the only HR lady out there who’s been told that it’s better to be stupid than wrong. That’s a dumb way to do HR.

(Rarely are the stakes so high in life that it’s dangerous to share an informed opinion. If words are that perilous and can derail relationships, there are bigger problems at hand and have nothing to do with the nuances of your HR policy manual.)

So if you’ve been wondering how to be a braver HR professional and simultaneously earn the trust of your colleagues and peers, I have an idea for you: have the courage to share your opinions.

Sometimes it’s more important to be confident than correct.

8 Responses to On Being Wrong in HR
  1. Bill Kutik (@billkutik)

    I think the word is “ignorant,” not “stupid.” And smart people are never afraid to admit their ignorance because they know so much else.

  2. Lori

    Thanks for this. This is advice I was given years ago and I still find it hard to shake.

  3. David Schneider

    Not stupid, but dumb. Dumb is ignorance, not knowing the answer. However, stupid is knowing better and getting it wrong. Saying “I don’t know, but will find out and follow up,” is perhaps the most professional way people learn.

  4. Scott

    Reall? . So you think it’s better to give a confident answer than look “wrong”? You would never work in my HR. It is NEVER more important “to be confident than correct”. I hope you will soon find a new career path.

  5. Art Williams

    “I can’t be the only HR lady out there who’s been told that it’s better to be stupid than wrong”…”So if you’ve been wondering how to be a braver HR professional… “. This could be interpreted as an inference that only women need to be counselled on “stupid” and “wrong” and/or that women make up the whole class of HR professionals. Both of these interpretations would be stupid or dumb or ignorant, and wrong.

  6. Andrew Rodaway

    A couple of years ago I started working in a new industry, which I didn’t know from cat poo. [The money was good, OK?]

    Anyway, for a few months I’d sit in on meetings where I *literally* had no idea what they were talking about. They could have been talking Russian. I’d hear things like:

    “So the MCQB will review all the CARs and then send the output to DS&E to be zinced by the BFAs before the CEC get it, OK?”

    I felt like a moron. Perhaps I am.

    Anyway, I had an epiphany. I found out the best way to deal with this was to look at people, and say “I know I’m very stupid but I didn’t understand any of that. Can you explain it in terms that a simple man can understand?”

    Mostly this works very well. Some people will always be dicks, though.

  7. Lisa

    I think, like many situations, it depends. In fact, I find that is usually the best answer to any question in HR: “it depends”! I think it’s great to share your opinion when an informed, experienced opinion is appropriate. But when in HR you’re talking about something that carries liability in the answer, I think you need to know the right answer, or find out.

  8. Therese Sousa

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    I give my team the information, I believe is right but also tell them that I will check on my answer to make sure since things change on a regular bases now a days.