How to Admit That You're Wrong

By Leah Fessler

While there is little power in always being right, it's easy to forget the positive potential of being wrong. Author Kathryn Schulz puts it best: "Our love of being right is best understood as our fear of being wrong," she writes. Because our words and actions are constantly reinforcing our identities, finding out that we are wrong can feel like a threat to our stability and sense of self.

In truth, being wrong is more a reflection on our potential growth than an indictment of what we are not, says Liane Davey, organizational psychology expert and author of The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team Back on Track. As a leader, if we cannot clearly and strategically admit our mistakes, we'll quickly lose trust and favor. Nor is simply saying "I'm sorry" sufficient.

The formula for admitting you're wrong as a leader is simple: vulnerability plus accountability. Vulnerability is an honest reflection on how you made others feel, and how you feel for having messed up. Accountability is a clear acknowledgement of your actions' impact, and what specifically you will do differently next time.

"When you balance these two elements, it's amazing how much trust you can build," says Davey. "The problem comes when you only have one or the other."

If you overemphasize vulnerability without accountability, dragging on about how terrible you feel without saying what you're going to do differently, people will lose confidence in your future abilities. On the flip side, if you overemphasize your "I've got it" plan but share no emotions or regret, you'll come across as untrustworthy and robotic. Both situations will decrease your leadership integrity, and once it's gone, it's exceptionally difficult to earn back.

"When leaders are willing to put vulnerability and accountability together, employees get the sense that, in this organization you don't always have to get it right, but you do always have to learn and be resilient," Davey explains. "How can you have confidence in leaders who haven't been tested by fire? You can't, and the same goes for leaders' ability to promote employees who haven't been tested."

The goal is to embrace what Davey calls "savvy missteps," as opposed to "sloppy mistakes." The difference between the two is both in how thoughtfully you behave, and how you communicate what you've done wrong.

If you've made a sloppy error that affects nothing beyond your own reputation, it may not be worth public communication. But if you've made a mistake that you personally have learned from, chances are others will too. This is an opportunity to present your error as a savvy mistake — one in which things didn't go as planned, but the consequences are not dire — and strengthen your commitment to your team in doing so.

Above all, it's important to remove judgment from a situation before apologizing for it. Present the objective behavior in a way that is relatively sterile, says Davey. Statements like, "I was rude," or "I rushed to action" are judgments, and they are difficult to learn from. Instead, focus on what specifically you did and what impact it had.

For example, "I made a call about one of our biggest business initiatives in only three days. You left another job to run this unit, and now it looks very different from what you expected." Once you've stated the objective, you can talk about the subjective. For example, "I regret that you might be feeling lost, and that my actions are the cause. I talked you into coming here. I want to do whatever I can to make this situation work better for you."

By differentiating the objective situation from your subjective evaluation, you peel away the drama and allow the employee to learn from what actually happened. Especially as women, it's important to empathize with the impact of major decisions without blaming ourselves for taking necessary action.

"As a leader, your first obligation is to make the right decisions for your business," says Davey. "Your second obligation is to implement your decisions in ways that are kind, humane, and best-suited to your culture and your integrity. You may need to apologize for the impact of a decision, but you should aim to never imply that you're sorry about the decision itself."

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