How To Admit You Are Wrong
It can often be difficult, when in a leadership role, to admit when you are wrong. Admitting you are wrong implies that you have made a mistake. Depending on the situation, such an admission can damage your credibility, undermine your authority, or worse, soil your reputation. The good news is that everyone makes mistakes. A good manager will admit to making mistakes, a great manager will ensure that he or she learns from that mistake and does not make it again. It is one thing to admit you were wrong to a superior, but when do you tell your associates that you were wrong? How you deliver that message will set the tone for your relationship with them going forward.
Never Having To Say You Are Sorry
Managing people is similar in many ways to raising children. Noted social worker and family therapist James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation Program, advises parents to admit to their children when they are wrong, but cautions them not to apologize. The admission of being wrong keeps you in control and conveys to the child that you too can make mistakes. The apology hands the control back to the child and gives them a win. The same principle applies to management. Conveying to your associates that you were wrong allows you to keep control of the conversation and set the tone and direction. Apologizing for a mistake strips you of that control. (Mind you, if you have made a serious mistake, you may have no choice but to apologize along with the admission of being wrong.)
A key component to having the “I was wrong” conversation with your team is your relationship history with your associates. If you are good at admitting you made a mistake, it will be an easier conversation. If you have a history of deflecting or assigning blame to others for your mistakes, it will be a difficult conversation, and one in which you will have to work hard to set the tone and direction. In my Fido days, I had a peer that would never admit when he was wrong. He made mistakes, no more than anyone else, but he never admitted to being wrong. He was skilled at deflecting and masterful at assigning blame in a convincing manner. We had an encounter where he was attempting to assign blame for a relatively minor miscue to my team. In front of my director and I he spun a wonderful tale that put all fault on my group. Because I was (and still am) a big fan of being able to CYA, I had all the information I needed, at my fingertips, to instantly prove him wrong, forcing him to admit to making a mistake. Now, in that situation, because of the minor nature of the issue, there was no harm, no foul. It showed, however, that there can be a compulsive need to shed blame. This can be extremely difficult to overcome, and if you as a manager, have a history of this type of behavior, you lose more credibility continuing to assign blame than you would if you admitted you were wrong.
Do you tell your peers or direct reports when you make a mistake?
There is more to the conversation than simply admitting you made a mistake. Before having the conversation with your associates, decide exactly what you want to tell them, and exactly how the team will learn and grow from the mistake. Remember, it is a lot easier to tell someone they were wrong and give advice on how to fix a problem. It is more difficult to admit when you made a mistake and find the solution to the problem. You need to be careful here not to make your misstep the team’s responsibility. You as a manager are responsible for everything they do, they are not responsible for everything you do.
A trick I would use to work through the conversation was to write a script for it in press release format. Essentially, I would describe the situation and my responsibilities, describe what went wrong and where I made the mistake(s), and go on to describe how we, as a team were going to correct the problem if necessary and create a plan to reduce the risk of making the same mistake again. It may seem like a good deal of work, but if you do not understand why the mistake happened and how to correct it, you will inevitably make the mistake again.
Having the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ mapped out, along with a “next steps” plan allows you to drive the conversation and keep control. Moreover, it demonstrates to your associates that you have a solid understanding of what happened and you are in control of the situation. It shows your associates that you are able to self-evaluate and keep yourself in check, and will likely inspire them to do more of the same. There are some problems for which you may not have a solution, some mistakes you can not correct on your own. You need to be prepared to look to your team for help. This is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign that you are a strong leader. Engaging them in the process of fixing the issue conveys a sense of trust to your team. They will gain more respect for you and a better grasp of the team’s responsibilities.
Admitting you made a mistake is a difficult thing to do as a manager. Taking responsibility for your actions, however, is part of being a manager. We all make mistakes, but not everyone learns from them. The “I was wrong” conversation and a road map to correcting the problem will go a long way to making you a stronger leader.