What if you are wrong?
During the second televised debate on Scottish independence last week, a very important question was asked. It is a question we should ask ourselves more often, both at home and at work.
The question was posed by Alistair Darling, a Scottish opponent of independence, to Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister and a supporter of breaking away from the UK. Darling's question was simple: "I want you to contemplate Alex, just for a minute: what if you are wrong?"
Salmond was judged to have won the debate, and the referendum on 18 September remains too close to call. But Darling's question — asking whether Salmond could be wrong in his assumptions about Scotland's economic potential as an independent country — elicited a cheer from the audience.
Most people do not like to be wrong. But how should you react if you are wrong? There are many popular (though devious) strategies. Here are four that you may have encountered — either at work or at home, or by listening to politicians and business leaders.
- Continue pretending that you are right. Ignore all evidence to the contrary.
- Stop talking about the topic and hope that nobody notices/remembers that you were wrong.
- Suddenly change your view and pretend that you had the "right" view all along.
- Continue to preach your original view, but practise exactly the opposite.
One might think that the obvious strategy would simply be to say, "Yes, I was wrong. I can see that. So now I've changed my mind and will preach and practise the opposite of what I said before." Sadly, our political and business cultures rarely allow leaders to react like that.
Instead, we see the four strategies above being used time and time again. My current favourite example of the fourth strategy relates to Britain's government and austerity (meaning restrictive fiscal policy). The government continues to preach the virtue of austerity, and even claims that Britain's recovery since 2012 is the result of its austerity policies.
In practice, however, as US economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, the British government has relaxed its austerity policies dramatically since 2011 — and the recent recovery is largely the result of this policy change. Yet the government continues to preach austerity. British pragmatism or British hypocrisy? You choose.
My guess is that, as the eurozone stagnates further, its leaders will find a way of continuing to preach austerity while practising less of it, in order to prevent another deep recession. That may be hypocritical — sorry, I mean pragmatic — but at least it would be a step in the right direction.
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