Training to Admit You’re Wrong

How do you create and train a culture that honestly evaluates the impact of important decisions and then nimbly changes course when necessary, with decision-makers readily admitting when they are wrong?

Acknowledging to yourself that you’re wrong, and then going the extra mile and admitting it to others, is hard for most people. It used to be too easy for me. I found myself constantly not only admitting I was wrong, but apologizing. I realized that almost no one else was doing the same. I was humbling myself for no reason and discrediting myself in the process.

However, there is something to be said for taking a balanced approach to admitting mistakes, sharing your regret with others, and then pointing out what the right approach or decision should have been. It might not have been necessary to make a huge deal about a punctuation mistake, in other words, but if I had worked with someone I misunderstood and then mischaracterized to others, that would be a good time to admit I was wrong. Other examples of times when it’s worth admitting mistakes are when you make decisions that negatively impact others, and then find the hard decisions you thought you had to make were unnecessary and misguided.

Wired to Avoid Uncertainty

Last week, I was impressed by a new series in The New York Times in which many of the paper’s opinion columnists shared what they realized they were wrong about. Economist Paul Krugman, for example, notes he was wrong about how the federal government’s pandemic economic stimulus package would impact the economy, and how it may have contributed to inflation.

Allie Volpe offers tips in Vox for admitting you’re wrong. One expert tells Volpe that a reason we find it hard to admit mistakes is we’re prewired to reject new information that conflicts with what we already know or believe. In other words, our brains are primed to do whatever is necessary to avoid what is known as cognitive dissonance. Adam Fetterman, assistant professor and director of the Personality, Emotion, and Social Cognition Lab, explains to Volpe that we want to avoid uncertainty.

“We’re highly motivated to reduce that uncertainty,” Fetterman tells Volpe. “Oftentimes, the most common way people get rid of it is by rejecting the new information or creating a new cognition that basically gets rid of it. Not too often do we actually change our thoughts or behaviors in order to align with the new information.”

That means a decision-maker in a department or at the head of a company may not be open to taking new information and admitting, in light of it, that a decision they already made was the wrong path. In this case, you would think admitting a mistake would be easy because at the time the decision was made, it wasn’t a mistake. It’s only a mistake in light of the new information. Yet stories abound of executives who refuse to change course regardless of what they learn.

Another common scenario is to notice that the results of a decision turn out to be bad, and the decision-maker is unable to acknowledge that the results are bad, and that they may need to rethink their decision.

Regular Evaluations and Annual Reviews

Getting input from at least a few key people before decisions are made is important, but it may be even more important to do a one-month, three-month, six-month, and one-year evaluation of the impact of important decisions. It could be part of the corporate culture that it is understood in advance of major decisions that there is a good chance of new information emerging, or of the plans not working as expected, so that a change or tweaking of the decision may be necessary. If this post-decision evaluation becomes part of your corporate culture and a regular routine, the difficulty of admitting a mistake was made is eased. Everyone understands in advance that decisions are made based on the best information available at the time, and that the plans put in place may need to be adjusted if the results of the decision are unfavorable.

Like everything else in an organization, employees and managers take their cues from the top. At least once a year, the top executives could share a review of the past year’s successes and failures, acknowledging publicly what didn’t work, and offer insights into what they might do differently the next year. They also could acknowledge when they don’t know how to change a plan that didn’t work out. They could ask for suggestions from all employees, and take the three employees with the best ideas out to lunch to talk further about their ideas. The executives would show they can acknowledge when plans do not go as expected, and that they are open to new information from anyone—regardless of level in the organization—who thinks they have a better way of doing things.

How do you create and train a culture that honestly evaluates the impact of important decisions and then nimbly changes course when necessary, with decision-makers readily admitting when they are wrong?