The Fine Line Between Stubbornness and Stupidity (2018)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Stubbornness isn’t necessarily bad and can in fact be a virtue

Stubbornness isn’t necessarily bad and can in fact be a virtue. Sometimes, as history has shown, people do the right thing by remaining steadfast to their beliefs. Take Charles de Gaulle. General de Gaulle refused to admit defeat after France was overrun by Nazi Germany during World War II. Against overwhelming odds, he persuaded the French that they would ultimately prevail. His unwavering belief in the greatness of his country helped him turn his vision into reality. After the war, then President de Gaulle managed to secure a permanent seat for France on the United Nations Security Council. His determination earnt France respect on the global stage.


At times, it is only by being stubborn that we can bring a great idea to life. Stubbornness makes us persevere. It helps us stand our ground when everyone else is trying to tell us that we are wrong. Used with discernment, stubbornness can be a strong leadership quality and a key determinant of success.


In the case of de Gaulle, stubbornness was a blessing. Unfortunately, there are not many of his ilk. This is because there are fine distinctions between wise stubbornness, ego-driven obstinacy and even sheer stupidity. 


The inner theatre of stubbornness


When there is overwhelming evidence that we are wrong, but we still insist on staying our own course, we must ask ourselves what motivates us to dig our heels in. What is happening in our inner world? 


When dealing with a stubborn person, we should not be fooled by outside appearances. Although stubborn people project strength and power, it is only a façade. Stubbornness is often a sign of insecurity and a way to hold on to a very fragile mental equilibrium. Truly strong people know how to compromise when necessary.


Stubborn people are often fearful of change, which explains the rigidity that characterises much of their behaviour. At an unconscious level, they perceive attempts to change their mind as personal attacks. Thus, they are always on their guard, lashing out at anyone who tries to question their ideas. Instead of accepting new information or entertain the possibility that someone else could be right, they prefer to argue their original point of view. 


Another characteristic of stubborn people is their tendency to categorise people as “good” or “bad,” depending on whether they agree with their ideas. With a preference for simplistic, black-and-white thinking, they are often prejudiced and resort to stereotyping.


Given stubborn people’s closed-mindedness, this behaviour pattern comes to full fruition when it involves religions, ideologies, political philosophies or economics. Embedded opinions in these areas are the hardest to change, as they are more subject to personal judgment and idiosyncratic interpretation. One can just think about Brexit, an issue around which political and economic ideologies have trumped reason.


Dealing with stubborn people


Because stubbornness contributes to interpersonal conflict, stubborn people sometimes see a need to change. In most instances, trying to change by themselves will be hard. The first step is to understand the story behind the stubbornness. This involves uncovering some of the experiences that led to this maladaptive behaviour. Stubbornness often arises as a survival mechanism.


Given stubborn people’s instinctive fear of being controlled by others, helpers must tread lightly. They need to go with the flow and control any impulse to move directly against the defences of the stubborn person. Instead, they should practise a form of emotional judo. Whatever resistances stubborn people put up – and however irritating they may be – helpers should try to remain empathic. Arguing with stubborn people will not pay off.


Helpers must also be extremely careful not only about what to say but also when to say it. When the time is right to present a different opinion, it should be done very respectfully. If this emotional judo is done correctly, stubborn people may consider the other point of view, even though they may initially reject it. Most importantly, helpers need to understand that for stubborn people to change, they must believe the change is their own idea.


No quick-fix


Developing a more stable sense of self-worth is never a quick fix. People can only change if they are prepared to explore why they do what they do and discover different ways to deal with life. The hope is, however, that stubborn people will realise that although the world is full of individuals who think they are right, an individual’s strength and pathway to greatness is the ability to admit fault when a wrong decision has been made.


Without reflection, stubbornness is nothing more than plain stupidity.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge.

Copyright INSEAD 2018

INSEAD Knowledge, 2018

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