Monday, January 13, 2014

Learn To Say 'I Was Wrong'

If there is one thing over the past decade plus that I've learned that has helped me to succeed it was learning to say I was wrong.

I think there's a bad stigma associated with admitting you're wrong. I think most people tend to believe that if they admit they're wrong they're admitting that they're weak, that they're not as good as their peers, or that they don't know enough. I think this is especially true in the technology industry.

As a professional technologist I'm competing against people that are younger, people that are older, people that have more experience, people that have better educations, people that have better intuition, and so on and so on. I'm constantly comparing myself to my peers and to the people I want to be my peers. That doesn't lend to an atmosphere where it feels like it is okay to be wrong.

Being able to admit you are wrong helps you build trust. It sends the signal to others that you're a person that puts doing the correct thing ahead of your own pride. It gives people insight and clarity into your intentions.

Being able to admit you are wrong is a sign of maturity. As humans one of the ways we learn and course correct is by looking back at things we have failed at . We analyze the situation identifying what we did correct and what we did incorrect and then trying to do more of what we've done correct. When you are able to admit you were wrong what you're doing is showing others that you are aware of this process and that you are actively trying to learn from your mistakes.

One of the best benefits of being able to admit you are wrong is that you'll no longer have to continually say I was right. Constantly having to tell people you were right in a situation is a sign that you're not owning up to when you were wrong. It's a sign that you feel the need to justify your position. Once you've gained trust and you've gained empathy you will have built trust in your skills and your decision making ability. You will have less stress from having to worry about what people think of your choices because your transparency will lead others to be more transparent.

Sure, there are going to be folks out there that are going to try to take advantage of this. But what I've noticed over the past decade plus is that once you set the expectation that you're a person that can admit fault or wrongness people are willing to help defend your right to be wrong. I believe this is because they want to work somewhere where it's okay to not be perfect.

Another positive outcome of admitting you were wrong is that you'll receive better constructive criticism. People will be less focused on trying to get you to realize that you were wrong and will start to focus on helping you understand and learn from why you were wrong. You will then have the ability to take that constructive criticism and learn from it. All the while you're gaining trust and empathy for you.

So next time you're confronted with having made a bad decision, the incorrect choice in technology, or whatever try admitting you were wrong and then commit to using what you've learned by being wrong to be better. You're company, your project, your team, and your career will all benefit from it.


  1. You should add "relationships" and "marriage" as labels on this post; if you swap out all references to your career, work, peers, etc. you've basically written a blog about one of the keys to a great relationship that an amazingly high percentage of people (especially guys, IMO) don't seem to understand. ;)

    That aside, I think it's worth expanding on a "side-effect" of admitting that you're wrong, especially as it pertains to the workplace. You've got one sentence tucked away in this post that almost gets there, but not quite: "I believe this is because they want to work somewhere where it's okay to not be perfect." Basically, once you've set the example that it's okay to be wrong, that it's okay to be criticized, you've started a movement towards others' also taking on the same mindset. (Although It actually takes two to start a movement, but let's not get into semantics...)

    As part of this, I've noticed that once you've started admitting your mistakes, it becomes easier and more acceptable to discuss the possibility that someone else may have made a mistake without risking a bunch of political and/or emotional fallout. When everyone understands that it's okay to raise their hand and say "sorry, that was my fault" during a project's post mortem, everyone can feel less "dirty" bringing up some issue or problem that was primarily caused by one or more individuals/teams, leading to a better analysis of the ups and downs of the project in a way that can be discussed without causing emotional and political backlash of one sort or another.

    For example, I recall a situation where another team decided to run a useability study - something that obviously takes time to set up - without notifying my team until an hour before it began. And since they decided to use our dev system for their test (Yes. You read that correctly.), we had to scramble to roll back a bunch of changes to get the system to a state that we weren't even 100% sure was what they had written their use cases for...and then wait around for them to finish before we could go back to actually working in our dev environment. Anyway, we of course had a fun meeting about that afterwards, and the air of "we can't point fingers, no one can be at fault" resulted in several people (myself included) looking like accusing jerks, caused emotions to flare, and set up an environment that made it very difficult to set any ground rules to prevent the situation (or similar) to happen again...and so of course it did repeat itself a few months later.

    I'm sure that scenario doesn't surprise anyone reading this blog: it's happened to all of us at some point, and probably more than once. Just because someone makes a mistake doesn't mean they necessarily even know that they screwed up, which makes it neigh-impossible to take accountability for the mistake without someone else having to bring it up. If everyone is comfortable accepting their mistakes, then it's okay to point fingers...because the action is no longer accusatory so much as it is a a signal for "there's something serious we need to discuss, and I hope you'll take the floor".

    Ugh. I actually feel dirty just writing the above down, and I'm not even comfortable or confident in my statements. Which proves the point of your post, I guess. :)

    1. I actually thought the same thing about this post being applicable to relationships in general and definitely marriage.

      I've really really come to believe that the way to get past finger pointing is to start by admitting when you're wrong. I think it sets the stage for a comfortable environment where when people do bring something up, that issue is treated with more respect and received less defensively simply be the sender of that message has gained credibility by being able to admit when they're wrong.

    2. Yep, agreed. Although it's still a tough sell, especially so when dealing with people/groups from certain cultures (be they foreign, regional, a matter of upbringing or otherwise). In my rambling story that happened to be a major factor in the "failure to communicate effectively" - the entire team in question came from a different culture, one where it was unheard of to place blame on anyone and/or accept actual wrongdoing but instead to dilute the "issues at hand" in such a way that either "everyone" was at fault or else no one was.

      Granted, that caused frustration and problems with accepting blame from a different angle than you approached the topic from, but it's something that (now that I've thought of it) is definitely applicable to your idea, here. I'm not sure how to approach it, but I can imagine that in certain situations admitting that you are wrong actually is a sign of weakness due to culture, ethnicity, or similar. Which obviously poses its own set of problems when you've got a mixed-culture workplace environment where those sorts of differences in mindset pose a real risk to your team and/or projects should they come in to conflict over things such as accepting (or implying) blame.