There is Not One Right Answer in Corporate America

As a young employee I struggled with the mindset found in the title and I’m sure many others struggled with it as well.  Here’s why: our whole lives through the US education system we are given a problem to solve.  We are graded on whether we answered the question correctly or not.  Our teachers and professors reward us with an “A+” or a “Nice job!” for getting more answers correctly.  And over time we are training ourselves there is only one correct answer.  But there is a flaw in this logic.

By having only one correct answer, we are teaching students that there is only one way to get to the answer.  We are asking them to get the answer and not question the methodology. 

The question asked in school is: “what is the answer to 4+4?”  The question teachers should be asking is “what are the different ways you can get to the number 8?” 

This allows the students to think critically about what they are doing and why they are doing it.  It allows them to use their logic in order to solve problems in different manners.  All students think differently - a student with a brain geared towards science will arrive at an answer in a technical manner, whereas a student with an art mind will look at a problem from a creative standpoint.  These differences should be celebrated.

How is this important in Corporate America?  It is easy to come in to Corporate America as an intern or new employee and seek out correct answers and validation from management that you are processing information correctly.  You have been trained for about 15 years to do this, after all.  But Corporate America operates differently.  There is never one correct answer nor is there one correct way to arrive at a conclusion.  Going back to the previous example, there is only one answer to “4+4,” but there are an infinite number of ways to get to the number 8.  In the working world, the focus is on the latter mindset.  Your team has a goal, so how do you reach it?

I have observed many new employees, myself included, being overly reliant on getting affirmation from their manager if a project or answer is correct.  Your manager will appreciate your efforts much more if you come to them with multiple solutions to problems and/or additional questions rather than asking if what you did is “right.”  Before you go to your manager and ask them “is this right?” think critically about what you are about to share with them.  Is there logic behind it?  What is that logic?  What problem are you solving for?  How can you make it better?  Ask yourself these questions and come up with a solution on your own, convince yourself that your logic is sound, and share it with your manager to get their thoughts.  Don’t ask them if it is correct.  Ask them to poke holes in your logic and provide feedback to improve both the solution and your ability to think critically.  

As a new employee, there are a few ways to shake the mindset your teachers and professors have taught of there being one correct answer and improve your performance in Corporate America:

  • Ask a lot of questions.  Do not assume that you or others on your team have the same questions as you.  Questions help you understand the entire problem.  Plus, it is OK for you to ask questions - you are new to the team!
  • Leverage your background and creativity.  You studied a specific field as an undergrad, so use that as your base in coming up with solutions.  Be creative in coming up with a solution - remember, there is no one way to reach a goal
  • Embrace “failure.”  There really is no failure in this situation, hence why the word is in quotes.  Do not be afraid to throw out any and all ideas.  You bring a unique mindset to the team, so use it, even if your ideas do not stick
  • Break the mold.  Today’s constraints are there for a reason, but it does not mean they will be there tomorrow.  Push yourself and your team out of their comfort zone and it will help you shake this mindset    

Thought Starters

  • Think about a personal or work-related goal you have.  What three ways can you accomplish that goal?
  • In your everyday life, how can you become more comfortable asking questions?