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What to Do When You Realize You’ve Made a Mistake

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Executive Summary

For many of us, finding out that we were wrong can feel like a threat to our self-identity. When that happens, we’re likely to act out in ways that undermine us even more, such as arguing, blaming others, withdrawing, or digging in our heels. So, before you’re viewed as wrong and arrogant, aloof, or unaccountable, you need to get ahead of the situation. You’ll want to talk with whomever you may have impacted with your decision, including your boss, your team, colleagues, direct reports, etc. Take responsibility. Say, “I was wrong.” Don’t say “mistakes were made” or “it didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated” or any other version that deflects or minimizes your personal contribution. Offer a brief explanation, but don’t make excuses. Acknowledge that your error had a negative impact on others, and be willing to really listen, without defensiveness, to others’ recounting of that impact. Do not interrupt. Apologize. Tell others what you’re doing right now to remedy the mistake, and distinguish between the parts that can be fixed, and those that can’t. Include what you are doing to address the substantive impact (money, time, processes, etc.) and well as the relational impact (feelings, reputation, trust, etc.). Be open to feedback and over-communicate your plans. Then tell those impacted by your error what you’ve learned about yourself, and what you’re going to do differently in the future.

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In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, author Kathryn Schulz writes, “Our love of being right is best understood as our fear of being wrong.” In other words, our commitment to believing that we know exactly what’s happening and why, and what to do about it, is reinforced by us trying very, very hard not to think about this possibility: “What if I’m making a mistake?” Or perhaps, even worse, “What if I already made one?”

For many of us, finding out that we were wrong can feel like a threat to our self-identity. Researchers Caroline Bartel, co-director of the Center for Leadership Excellence at the McCombs School of Business, and Jane Dutton, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business, explain that, in both our words and deeds, we are constantly expressing how we see ourselves — and how we want others to see us. This is called “identity claiming.” And when we’re wrong, we experience the pain of realizing that the identity we may have claimed for ourselves — an expert, the go-to guru, etc. — has suffered a blow.

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Difficult Conversations

What makes it even worse? When others are involved. It’s one thing to hold a committed belief, make plans, or execute a task that only you know about, and then end up being wrong. When that happens, you get to reconcile it privately, between you and yourself. But when you’ve shared your convictions with others, and rallied the troops (or perhaps strong-armed them) to get them on board, and you’re wrong, you’re now faced with an “identity granting” problem. You may have seen yourself as a smart cookie, but if those around you don’t — or they did and now they don’t — the identity that you chose for yourself hasn’t been affirmed by others.

According to social psychologist Dolly Chugh, author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, when we aren’t sure whether an identity that feels important to us has been granted, our need for affirmation becomes urgent and intense.

When that happens, we are likely to act out in ways that undermine our claimed identities even more, such as arguing, blaming others, withdrawing, deflecting accountability, or digging in our heels.

So, before you’re viewed as wrong and arrogant, aloof, or unaccountable, you need to get ahead of the situation. You’ll want to talk with whomever you may have impacted with your decision, including your boss, your team, colleagues, direct reports, clients, etc. (And you probably need to have a talk with yourself, too.)

Each of these conversations should have three parts:

  1. Take responsibility. Say, “I was wrong.” (Don’t say “mistakes were made” or “it didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated” or any other version that deflects or minimizes your personal contribution). Offer a brief explanation, but do not make excuses. Acknowledge that your error had a negative impact on others, and be willing to really listen, without defensiveness, to others’ recounting of that impact. Do not interrupt. Apologize.
  2. Address what you need to do right now. Taking responsibility is critical, as is taking action. This is core to crisis communication, even if your mistake doesn’t constitute a major crisis. Tell others what you are doing right now to remedy the mistake, and distinguish between the parts that can be fixed, and those that can’t. Include what you are doing to address the substantive impact (money, time, processes, etc.) and well as the relational impact (feelings, reputation, trust, etc.) of having been wrong. Be open to feedback about what you’re doing. Over-communicate your plans.
  3. Share what you will do differently next time. Being wrong is messy. Being wrong without self-reflection is irresponsible, even if you hate self-reflection. Take some time to think about what your contribution was to this situation, and identify how others contributed as well. (Try to stay away from using words like “fault” or “blame” — which tend to put people on the defensive.) Then tell those impacted by your error what you’ve learned about yourself, and what you’re going to do differently in the future. For example, you might recognize that you tend to dismiss the input of someone you don’t see eye-to-eye with, and that in the future, you’re going to actively engage her, and consider her perspective. Ask for help where you need it. And ask others to give you frequent feedback down the road on the commitments you’re making.

J.K. Rowling wrote, “The best of us must sometimes eat our words.” As soon as you realize you’re wrong, make sure that the next words you utter aim to rebuild your identity, your reputation, and your relationships.

Source: HBR.org
Author: Deborah Grayson Riegel