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Axioms for Efficient Firms #4: It’s Not About Who is Right. It’s About What Works

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by Nathan Morris

on 13 January, 2015

The Axioms for Efficient Firms are core values espoused by the founders of Filevine that they believe guide legal professionals to a more productive practice. This axiom means different things, depending on the relationship and power dynamics. But in any situation it comes down to reigning in your ego for the sake of shared success. It’s not about who is right; it’s about what works.


To see what happens when “what works” is obliterated by “who is right,” look to the most outsized egos. For instance: dictators. Joseph Stalin condemned several fields of scientific inquiry, including genetics, as “bourgeois pseudoscience,” because he felt they threatened his ideology. Scientists who endorsed such heresies were deposed from universities and sent to labor camps. One biologist, interested in Darwinian evolution, pretended to retire from science and instead raise foxes on a fur farm, where he then secretly carried out the biological experiment of fox domestication. (It worked, by the way.)

Something like this happens in any system which exists to prop up outsized egos with a myth of infallibility. The Roman Inquisition ensured that seventeenth-century astronomers drew their planetary orbits in extravagant curlicues, in order to avoid the life-long house arrest of foolish heretics like Galileo Galilei, who diagrammed the earth out of the center of the universe.

What about when you’re working with a client or employer who appears to have a dogma they will fiercely defend, despite your best advice?

Just because we’re not working in a dictatorship or theocracy doesn’t mean we’re safe from egos. The first question to ask with this axiom is: What is my own dogma? Any place you have power or authority, any defensiveness you have about your ego has the potential to arrest the free-flow of knowledge and creativity. Are your most creative employees leaving? Do the rest do the equivalent of drawing increasingly complex planetary orbits instead of exploring simpler solutions that might prove you wrong?

If this is the case, it’s time for an ego-check. Your task is to celebrate the ingenuity of others, and reward them for their creativity, even when it runs counter to your established beliefs.

But this advice isn’t very helpful if you find you’re on the other side of the Roman Inquisition. What about when you’re working with a client or employer who appears to have a dogma they will fiercely defend, despite your best advice?

Of course, we can all imagine toxic situations where the relationship needs to be terminated (if a soviet geneticist could have just resigned from the USSR, or dropped Stalin as a client, we would all have considered that a wise move). But to decrease the chances of arriving at the point of irreconcilable differences, there are a few principles we can remember:

Sometimes even a layperson’s an expert.

Have you ever encountered doctors who are such experts on the human body that they know better than their patients how they are feeling? When they submit their patients to torture, and hear in response a yelp of pain, they’re quick to respond that actually it’s only “pressure” the patient is feeling.

Of course, no matter how deeply this expert has studied the human body, there are still some places where the know-nothing patient is the expert. It happens with other fields as well. Consider conceding to a client’s knowledge of their experiences, the features of their line of work, or the personalities of the other people involved. As someone just dipping into their life, you won’t have more “expert” knowledge on them than they will have on themselves.

Weigh the worth of disagreement.

But of course, sometimes you are the expert, and unequivocally know best what to do in a given situation. There are many rhetorical tactics available to you to persuade a client or coworker — if the issue is worth the time it takes to try them. Often the best tactics in these cases are clarity and the humility required to show respect to their other person’s thoughts, even while disagreeing.

If this doesn’t convince a client or co-worker, it’s time to decide which battles are worth the wounds. It goes without saying that any battle primarily driven by anger, a desire for retribution, or a need to be right will not be worth the wounds. In such cases, even winning an argument could mean losing a client.

“Too often we let our desire to ‘be the winner’ get in the way of actually winning.” – Nathan Morris

But even when a disagreement is rooted in valid concerns, it doesn’t have to result in an epic stand of Galileo against the Roman Inquisition. Are you dealing with something that runs up against your fundamental principles, or is it simply an inconvenience or pet peeve? If you are pushing for a new method rather than what others expect, does your idea have to be put into place immediately, or can you take more time to build supporters for future projects?

You don’t have to be reminded that time and resources are limited. If you can cultivate patience and the concern isn’t a fundamental ethical issue, you might find that “what works” is conceding to another person’s ideas. Nathan Morris explains in the video at the top of the page how this might look from a practical sense.

Fortunately, sometimes your flexibility can be your most disarming weapon, causing your client or coworker to feel more free to drop their own defenses now or in the future.

Know when to take your stand.

When you do take your stand, do it deliberately, in order to stick with a foundational principle. If it’s an issue dealing with ethics, your personal boundaries as a professional, or how your decision will affect others or the organization as a whole, you will need to explain this clearly and firmly.

If you’ve been flexible on other issues, your client or coworker should be able to recognize that something different from ego-centric stubbornness is going on. But whether or not they do, the more careful you have been to weigh your stance, more better you will feel about sticking with it.