How does it feel when people don’t listen to you? If you’re anything like me, it probably bugs you quite a bit. One of the reasons people may not be listening to us has to do with our self-righteousness, whether we’re aware of it or not.
As someone who has studied, written, and spoken about relationships, communication, leadership, and teamwork for over two decades, I have learned how dangerous and damaging self-righteousness is to our ability to communicate, connect, and collaborate.
When we’re able to remove our self-righteousness, it can have a positive impact on our relationships, communication, teams, and so much more.
I understand that removing self-righteousness is challenging to do, especially these days. I’ve worked with so many people, leaders, and teams that struggle with this. And while difficult, it is one of the most important things we can do to enhance our partnerships and culture.
Removing our self-righteousness doesn’t mean watering down our opinions or decreasing our passions, it means letting go of the arrogant notion that we are “Right” (with a capital R) and that anyone who disagrees with us is “wrong.”
It’s okay and often important to have strong opinions. And, it can be essential to believe in our values about life, work, and everything else.
However, understanding the difference between conviction and self-righteousness is essential.
What’s the Difference Between Conviction and Self-Righteousness?
When we’re coming from a place of conviction about something, we believe it to be true. We might even be willing to speak up about it, defend our position, and engage in healthy dialogue or debate about it with those who see things differently than we do.
But, we also have enough humility, awareness, and maturity to consider that we might be wrong—or that there might be different ways to look at it, even if we can’t see or understand them.
We’ve all had experiences when we thought we were 100 percent right about something, only to realize, upon further reflection, that we were actually wrong. As humbling as this can be, remembering this can help us from crossing the line over to self-righteousness and give us the perspective to stay in a place of healthy conviction.
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 simply want to prove our point.
Look at the tenor of the political discourse in our country and our world right now. Many of us, myself included, have strong political opinions. There are serious issues that divide us.
Additionally, covid has brought about a tremendous sense of division among families, friends, and coworkers. It has brought fear into our homes and has left a sense of the unknown lingering in the air. We currently live in a paradox that divides many of us.
At a time like this, it is more important than ever to really listen to one another and come together. Sadly, this seems to have also gotten way more challenging as well.
Instead of engaging in healthy and productive debates about these things, there is so much intense self-righteousness that we seem unable to listen to one another, which is almost as scary and dangerous as any of the specific issues or challenges we’re facing.
We end up demonizing people who disagree with us, refusing to talk or listen to them—or, when we do, we make our case in such a self-righteous way that we create more separation and disconnection. Turn on cable news, or read the comments section of many news websites or blogs, and you’ll see the intensity of self-righteousness playing out right in front of you.
And this doesn’t happen just with politics; it happens right in our own lives, families, and work environments. We separate ourselves from those who don’t think like we do or hold the same ideas, opinions, or beliefs.
At work, our self-righteousness leads to disconnection, unresolved conflicts, and factions within teams and organizations. Lines get drawn between departments, offices, regions, and levels within the company, making it more challenging to make decisions, collaborate, and get things done.
And with so many of us still working remotely, this has become even more challenging to navigate.
It Takes Willingness and Maturity to Let Go of Self-Righteousness
Most of us can be self-righteous at times, and we often aren’t aware of it because we’re so focused on being right. When you and I are being self-righteous, we don’t actually think we’re being self-righteous…we just think we’re right.
It takes quite a bit of self-awareness to notice our own righteousness, and it takes willingness and maturity to let it go or to at least look at things from a different perspective.
If we want to connect with those around us in an authentic way and create an environment of openness, trust, and collaboration, we must be willing to recognize, own, and remove our self-righteousness.
How does self-righteousness show up in your work and your life? What can you do to remove it in service of your relationships, communication, and collaboration?
Portions of this article are excerpted from Bring Your Whole Self to Work, by Mike Robbins, with permission. Published by Hay House (May 2018) and available online or in bookstores.
I have written five books about the importance of trust, authenticity, appreciation, and more. In addition, I deliver keynotes and seminars (both in-person and virtually) to empower leaders and teams to grow, connect, and perform their best. Finally, as an expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, I teach techniques that allow people and organizations to be more authentic and effective. Find out more about how I can help you and your team achieve your goals today. You can also listen to my podcast here.
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This article was originally published on October 10, 2018, and updated for 2022.