The Power of Admitting A Mistake
Confucius said, “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake.” Yet, many times when a mistake is made, people try to pretend that it did not happen. They attempt to justify the wrong position or try to cover it up, which leads to additional mistakes. This situation reminds me of another quote — “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Quite often, more damage is done to credibility, relationships, trust and integrity by the actions taken after the original mistake. This is true in personal relationships and especially true when a leader makes a mistake. How many times have we seen high-profile people get prosecuted, not for the original crime, but for the attempt to cover it up by lying?
Of course there is another choice when a mistake is made—admit it, learn from it, correct it and apologize to those that were adversely affected. There is power in properly admitting a mistake.
Why Admit a Mistake?
Rather than try to ignore or cover up a mistake, there can be many personal and organizational advantages to properly admitting a mistake.
- Averts the need to continue to defend a difficult or incorrect position.
- Increases leadership credibility.
- Avoids additional mistakes trying to cover up or “adjust” for the original mistake.
- Reduces personal stress and tension.
- Provides a “reset” from others in both personal and professional relationships.
- If you take responsibility for a mistake on-behalf of others who participated, it builds loyalty.
- Provides a learning situation for you and others.
- Builds trust—others see that you are human, honest and truthful.
- Allows quick correction, which saves time and resources.
- Gives others a chance to express views and provide new information.
- Shows others that they are valued and that their input counts, which builds collaboration.
- Increases the organization’s ability to try new things then quickly stop those that do not work, which helps establish an innovative culture.
- Sets the tone for risk-taking, open communication and makes you more approachable.
- Provides concrete examples to reinforce critical aspects of culture: decisiveness, truthfulness, openness, integrity and quick correction.
- Removes the “elephant-in-the-room” situation where everyone knows about the mistake, but no one talks about it.
- Helps offset the bad feelings for those that may have wasted their time.
- Decreases “pocket-vetoes” when others see the mistake, do not confront it, but simply do not implement.
When Admitting Mistakes Does Not Have Power
There are situations when admitting a mistake does not have much benefit. In these circumstances, mistakes must still be acknowledged, but do not expect respect, increased credibility or any of the other benefits listed above.
- If you continually make and admit mistakes, you look reckless.
- If the mistake was made out of sheer ego or stubbornness.
- When it is the second, third or nth time you have made the same mistake.
- When it was caused by “ready, fire, aim” or knee-jerk reaction when other information should have been considered.
- If you try to justify it by “just following orders from above.”
- If was done by an angry, emotional reaction and everyone knows it.
These situations can still provide value as a learning experience, if only as an example of what not do.
How to Admit a Mistake
There are several principles to keep in mind to achieve the best outcome when admitting and correcting a mistake.
- Don’t blame others. Take responsibility. If someone else needs coaching, do it in private.
- Do not try to get others to admit the mistake on your behalf. When others are asked to do the “dirty work,” leadership credibility goes out the window.
- Stick to the facts and do not make it look like an excuse. Indicate what information was incorrect.
- This is not a time for cynical humor used to disguise an excuse or blame.
- Indicate what you and/or the organization should learn from the mistake and how not to repeat it.
- Ask for more input from others.
- Apologize to those who have wasted their time.
- If possible, state the new direction, or decision, then indicate who is accountable to implement.
- If there is not an immediate correction, provide the process and timeframe for correcting the mistake.
All of us make mistakes—it is part of learning and growing. The only people who do not make mistakes are the ones who never try anything new. As a leader it is also a mistake to think that you need to have all the right answers all the time. Trying to be right all the time is stressful, slows progress and causes procrastination. Leadership is about allowing others to use their talents, providing the proper culture and setting the direction.
Admitting and correcting mistakes does not make you look weak; it actually makes you look stronger. When you admit mistakes, you help establish a culture of open communication and a willingness to improve by demonstrating an attitude of, “Let’s learn from this.” The result builds organizational trust, provides an atmosphere for innovation and improves collaboration.
Remember, mistakes are almost never “secret”—most are visible, and the longer they go without correction, the more difficult and expensive it is to change—not to mention that the longer it continues, the worse the leader appears.
I once had someone tell me that the only real mistake is the one from which you learn nothing.