“I was wrong.” “I am wrong.” “I may be wrong.” How easily these words come to a person and how willing they are to say them can be the difference between success and failure. They can be the difference between creating or reducing trust and building or destroying a relationship. They can be the difference between growing a business or losing a business. They can be the difference between saving lives or losing lives.
I was listening to a historian who was explaining the times that countries went to war and/or stayed in a war even when losing was inevitable. The leaders just could not admit they had made a mistake.
One reason is that when someone says, “I was wrong,” the acceptance may not be great. In fact, the opposite can happen: they can be vilified. A person shared they did not like a certain elected official because they changed positions on a topic. I shared that when someone has new information or gains new experience, changing their mind is actually a good thing. As mentioned earlier, wars have been fought due to leaders not being willing to say they were wrong. There are, at times, legal concerns. In healthcare, an organization may not want to say, “We made a mistake” due to possible financial consequences. A person may not want to admit they made a mistake due to the consequences that will be faced. As is often the case, there is no easy answer.
All too often, inner peace requires admitting mistakes. This is a key leadership challenge. Acknowledging a mistake does not mean the initial decision wasn’t a good one. For example, I live in Pensacola, Florida. Many years ago, the wastewater treatment plant was placed very close to downtown and very close to the Gulf of Mexico. I bet at the time, this location made sense for cost reasons and because of the way waste was discarded. In the 2000s, as a smell drifted over downtown periodically and Hurricane Ivan led to gallons of waste ending up in the Gulf, people wondered, What were they thinking? They called the treatment plant “Old Stinky.” Today, the treatment plant is no longer in the same location.
Making decisions is tricky. I recently read an article by Ken Kaufman, founder of Kaufman Hall, a consulting firm. Ken is known for sharing facts. His article questioned some of the key tactics healthcare leaders have taken and are taking. Ken may be wrong; he may be right. It depends on each situation. However, it will be very hard for a leader who recommended their organization invest millions of dollars in a strategy to now say based on today’s circumstances, “We need to exit this strategy.” No one can predict the future.
There are those times when what seemed like the right decision will not be one to stick with. This is not about admitting that a mistake was made in the initial decision; it’s about realizing that it is a mistake to stay with something that is no longer working. I was fortunate to hear Chief Operating Officer Kathi Edrington and Chief Medical Officer Shaheed Koury, MD present at a workshop with Adena Health in Chillicothe, Ohio. Adena is an excellent healthcare system. They showed a statement that said, “People will tend to continue to act even after the action quits working.” As I read this I thought, How true. I see this in my healthcare work; certain tools I wrote and coached on years ago no longer work the way they once did. Things have changed. We need to ask what is working and what is not.
Here are a few tips on learning how to admit when you are wrong:
- Practice humility. It is easier to deflate your own ego than to have it deflated for you. Humility does not mean pushing the good away. That is false pride. Humility is the ability to gain self-awareness and to understand the facts. I was meeting with a business owner with whom I have a very good relationship. His company was going to be taken out by the bank that had loaned him money due to the company not doing well. At the last minute he received an offer from another company to buy the business. Even knowing that otherwise the bank would take the business, he told me he did not want to sell. He felt his company was worth more than the amount that was being offered. I said to him, “The fact is, the company is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” This was hard for him to accept. All of this is understandable. It is good to surround yourself with people who love you enough to give feedback that may be tough to hear.
- Recognize characteristics that get in the way of saying, “I was wrong.” These are denial, rationalization, blame, anger, and jealousy. These traits and emotions block humility and keep one from admitting a mistake. If you cannot rise above these on your own, ask for help. Prayer is a good go-to. Ask for help in removing these blockages.
- It is okay to explain that at the time, the decision made sense. Building a large commercial office building may have made sense before the pandemic, and still may in some cities. However, due to the impact of the pandemic, many office spaces are empty. There are many examples in which, at the time, the decision was the right one. Today that may not be so. There are times when it is fine to share with employees that while the decision at one time made sense, it no longer does.
- Be teachable. That is a gift. Every very successful leader I have ever met has this is common. They are teachable. They are open to considering options different from those they might have chosen themselves. They are open to trying new things, and most of all, can accept feedback without being defensive.
- Admit when you are wrong. Say, “I am sorry” as quickly as possible. You can also add, “What can I do to make this right?”
We are all students in the classroom of life. Mistakes are part of the process. They are how we get better and better. When we are willing to admit we were wrong, we set the right example for others so that we can all grow together. We also strengthen our relationships, as showing vulnerability improves trust. We become more relatable and likeable. Others appreciate knowing that we are human; it gives them permission to be human, too.