When stubbornness becomes sheer stupidity

In business, persistence and perseverance are rated highly. Stories from founders like KFC's founder Colonel Harland Sanders who failed many times as an entrepreneur are repeated often to foster resilience amongst young business people. Legend has it, that in his efforts to franchise his restaurant the Colonel's recipe was rejected more than a 1,000 times. “Dig your heels in and don't let go” has hence become almost a mantra amongst hopeful business talent.


But Manfred Kets de Vries, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change at Insead, begs to differ and writes in his blog:  “Without reflection, stubbornness is nothing more than plain stupidity”.

Stubbornness isn’t necessarily bad and can in fact be a virtue, he concedes: “At times, it is only by being stubborn that we can bring a great idea to life.” Stubborn people know what they want and therefore are more decisive. They have greater focus and they get things done.

But there is an ugly side to stubbornness as well, says the professor: “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.” In fact, really strong people know when to compromise, whereas stubborn people may resort to dogma and power games, observes Kets de Vries.

When dealing with a stubborn person, a lot of empathy is needed and the willingness to understand the story behind the stubbornness: “Stubbornness often arises as a survival mechanism”, according to the Insead professor. Helpers must 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.”

Gradually, the stubborn person may develop a stable sense of self and discover that their need for argument is abating, but there are no quick fixes for stubbornness. An individual’s strength “and pathway to greatness is the ability to admit fault when a wrong decision has been made”.

Read more on knowledge.insead.edu