If You Have to Be Wrong, How Can You Admit It More Easily?

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Earlier this month, Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, wrote a guest post about the perils of admitting wrong-doing. Now she’s back with another post, this one about how to change our attitude toward wrongness by making it easier to admit error.

Crowd-Sourcing a Better Response to Being Wrong
By Kathryn Schulz

Listening to BP CEO Tony Hayward dodge and duck during last week’s congressional inquiry into the explosion of the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, I was struck all over again by our stunning, culture-wide inability to face up to ignorance, failure, and mistakes.

That inability is particularly evident up in the power stratosphere, where admissions of error are made rarer by (among other things) threats of litigation, fear of the wrath of voters or shareholders, and a value system that generally prioritizes certainty and ego over curiosity and humility.? But this problem is hardly limited to our political, military, economic and corporate leaders.? On the contrary: our society as a whole has completely neglected to master the art of acknowledging our mistakes.? In fact, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.”

This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it could provide.? Instead, what we have mastered are two alternatives to admitting our mistakes that serve to highlight exactly how bad we are at doing so.? The first involves a small but strategic addendum: “I was wrong, but…” – a blank we then fill in with wonderfully imaginative explanations for why we weren’t so wrong after all.? The second (infamously deployed by, among others, Richard Nixon regarding Watergate and Ronald Reagan regarding the Iran-Contra affair) is even more telling: we say “mistakes were made.”? As that evergreen locution so concisely demonstrates, all we really know how to do with our errors is not acknowledge them as our own.

How do we go about changing that?? It would be nice if we could all just start saying “I was wrong” more openly and readily – but if that’s the end we want, it cannot also be the means to get us there.? (Not to mention that if it were that easy, we’d hear a lot more of those admissions in the first place.)? Cultural shifts aren’t created by wishful thinking, and they aren’t created out of whole cloth, either.? As James Bagian, head of the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Patient Safety, told me, “You don’t change the culture [of denial and blame around error] by saying, ‘Let’s change the culture.’? You change the culture by giving people new tools that actually work.”

Such tools exist.? Bagian’s own field, medicine, has lately started trying to arm its practitioners with the means and skills to face up to their mistakes. When the VA learned that the major reason clinicians didn’t report errors wasn’t fear of legal action but a feeling of humiliation, they circulated a definition of “blameworthy” harm to a patient that limited such cases to those involving assault, the use of illegal substances, or intentionally attempting obviously dangerous procedures.? The result?? Error reporting shot up 30-fold.? That’s good news for patients: better error reporting translates to fewer errors, since you can’t prevent problems when you don’t know they’re happening.? As a result, these kinds of cultural tools turn out to be at least as important for reducing medical error as improvements in technology or information.

Nor are such tools limited to domains like medicine.? During the years I’ve spent thinking about wrongness, any number of people have shared with me their own, homegrown strategies for breaking the habit of defensiveness and denial.? In response to my last post on this blog, for instance, one group of college friends wrote in to say:

After three years of arguing with each other, we implemented a system.? When someone said something that was clearly wrong or out of place, that person had to say “I was wrong.”? The other four would applaud for that person, and then it was over.

Sometimes, too, we can use our dislike of being wrong against itself.? Responding to an NPR appearance I made, one woman wrote in to say:

Years ago, I stumbled on a phrase that improved me as a parent and a spouse.? It’s an especially useful phrase because it’s usually true.? It adds a little rueful humor and it diffuses tension.? I find myself using it a lot: “I hate it when you’re right.”

In a similar vein, the Chicago Public Radio show “This American Life” once ran an episode about a fictional magazine called “Modern Jackass” – which is what you appear in when you find yourself staking claims about subjects you know nothing about.? As in: “You know all that stuff I just said about the Ottoman Empire?? That was part of my cover story for Modern Jackass: Turkish Edition.”? Host Ira Glass compared the phrase to Post-It Notes: you have no idea how much you need it, but once you have it, you use it all the time and can’t believe how much easier it makes your life. Meanwhile, some people have developed tools for responding to other people’s errors rather than their own.? One such person reports that he and his housemates have a rule that each of them only gets one “I told you so” per friend per lifetime – a policy designed to ensure that you think long and hard before deciding to crow about your own rightness and the wrongness of your friends.

So readers, here’s my challenge for you: what successful tools have you developed for facing up to your own ignorance, failures and mistakes?? What policies or practices have you put in place in your home or your workplace to cultivate a healthier and more productive attitude toward error?? What do you do – and what could all the rest of us do – to face up to wrongness more gracefully than Tony Hayward?


Ian Kemmish

--- National stereotype alert ---

I can't - and wouldn't - speak for Tony Hayward, but speaking as a Brit who's done business in the US I've noticed that when acknowledging a mistake over there, one becomes painfully aware of this invisible army of lawyers hovering over the shoulder of the person you're admitting the mistake too.... it does make it more difficult!

Of course, not all Americans are litigious, and some Brits are these days extremely litigious when it comes to compensation claims, and anyway all my business contacts were really very nice people, but it's still something that you're irrationally aware of.

I also experienced the flip side while out walking in San Francisco once. I reached out to pat a friendly-looking dog (on a leash), and it went for me. The owners just stood there looking at me, and then visibly sighed and relaxed when, after examining my bitten finger, I just said "It's nothing to worry about" and walked on.

Perhaps this reluctance is a side-effect of the compensation culture? Should we blame Ralph Nader? (I say this only half-seriously....)

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Gavin Lazarow

My favorite is to tell someone "Stop making sense!" when they've made me realize I was wrong.

Brad

I'm very experienced at being wrong.When my advice turns out to be wrong, or I get my facts mixed up, I usually say something like "I sure messed that up." I'm always given a chance to make it right, and I don't think I'm judged to harshly.
My belief is that people who can't admit they've been wrong have weak egos.

Jeff Dilks

OK, two dissimilar life situations and two responses.

1) At home I have often used the phrase "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

2) When I was teaching high school and a student would question my grading of an item on an exam, I would always start with the following, "There can be three outcomes to this conversation: I might admit that I was wrong, you might admit that you are wrong, or we can agree that we can't agree. If I am wrong, the grade stands. If you are wrong the grade will be changed. If we can't agree, then we will bank the point and see if it matters at the end of the year." This defused the situation and gave us a graceful out.

In both cases it also helps that I am not reluctant to flat out admit that I amwrong.

PaulD

Certain people -- such as the President and the Fed Reserve chairman -- are expected to be nearly infallible, as silly as that is. For the rest of us I think people respect a simple "I don't know" so long as your ignorance isn't negligent. A doctor who misses the symptoms of Lyme disease, say, or a tax accountant who fails to take advantage of common (and legal) shelters are both deserving of any derision they incur.

Don Merrill

Interesting column, except for its opposite. Lucy Callaway, a business columnist for the BBC, recently did a piece about the importance of insensitivity in chief executives. Her point was, as the head of BP said to her in an interview a week earlier, that insensitivity lets leaders sleep peacefully because if they opine too much about their decisions, mistake-filled or not, they have no reason being chief executives. And is that not also true? And BTW, ignorance also isn't necessarily a trait that excludes the ignorant from command positions, as this piece of scholarly work highlights - http://gagne.homedns.org/~tgagne/contrib/unskilled.html

Lise Quintana

I remember as a kid watching a Sesame Street episode where Ernie and Bert were arguing about something, and one of them admits that he's wrong. They eventually agree that the first person to say "I'm sorry" wins.

I've coupled that with the advice that "'I'm sorry' is a down payment on making it right" to come up with the strategy I use often in my error-riddled life: admit fault promptly and follow it up with a plan for reparation. Having something to say AFTER "I'm sorry" makes the apology a little easier to get out and get beyond.

frankenduf

i think we should all bow to each other before saying anything- o wait a minute...

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Many of us are More STUBBORN than Mules.

Stubborn means we stand our ground. 50% of the time we may be right, but 50% of the time we are clearly wrong.

Public Shaming and Humiliation may be a Required part of the process to separate us from our Stubborn Pride.

Sometimes you have to rip out someone's beating heart and show it to them, to prove a mortal defeat. But short of that, we all have to check our hubris, pride and stubborness if we are to make any progress.

Don't be afraid to use social embarrasment...it can be an effective tool.

KevinM

Because judicial opinions are frequently presented as self-evident truths, admitting error can be difficult for judges. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson with good humor stepped up up to take his licks:
"Precedent, however, is not lacking for ways by which a judge may recede from a prior opinion that has proven untenable and perhaps misled others. See > Chief Justice Taney, License Cases, 5 How. 504, 12 L.Ed. 256, recanting views he [340 U.S. 178] had pressed upon the Court as Attorney General of Maryland in > Brown v. State of Maryland, 12 Wheat. 419, 6 L.Ed. 678. Baron Bramwell extricated himself from a somewhat similar embarrassment by saying, 'The matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then.' Andrew v. Styrap, 26 L.T.R. (N.S.) 704, 706. And Mr. Justice Story, accounting for his contradiction of his own former opinion, quite properly put the matter: 'My own error, however, can furnish no ground for its being adopted by this Court * * *.' > United States v. Gooding, 12 Wheat. 460, 478, 6 L.Ed. 693. Perhaps Dr. Johnson really went to the heart of the matter when he explained a blunder in his dictionary--' Ignorance, sir, ignorance.' But an escape less self-depreciating was taken by Lord Westbury, who, it is said, rebuffed a barrister's reliance upon an earlier opinion of his Lordship: 'I can only say that I am amazed that a man of my intelligence should have been guilty of giving such an opinion.' If there are other ways of gracefully and good naturedly surrendering former views to a better considered position, I invoke them all."
71 S.Ct. 224, 340 U.S. 162, McGrath v. Kristensen, (1950)
------------ Excerpt from page 71 S.Ct. 233.

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Gary Rue

I was once told that I never admitted to being "wrong." My response was that I never claimed to be "right." Sometimes, the best way to get to a good solution is to make some information providing missteps. The key is to be open enough to assess the results and to be flexible enough to make appropriate changes and adjustments.

Janice

Cop to mistakes in a timely manner. Don't wait until you're 90 and on your deathbad to make things right--it won't have any significant impact and you will burn in hell anyway if that's the kind of life you've led.

J

do it preemptively.. I usually start of by saying.. "I can't really remember but was it not that ..." or, start apologising first before others point out your mistake.. "Omg, I just did something really stupid!" so that it makes the other person feels like they are part of your solution (caress their ego a little)and may concentrate more on helping rather than mocking.

KarenS

When I'm wrong, I find the least painful way out of it is to immediately admit I was wrong, and start working toward correcting the error. Any delays in admitting wrongdoing is costly, not only in money, but in reputation, because the problems caused by my errors don't go away.

MIGUEL VASCONEZ

To solve a problem any Business school will teach to follow theses steps:
1 identify the problem:
How bad it is? ..the gravity of the situation on hand... like how much oil is surfacing, who is dead or missing, where are they? How is the equipment?
DeepHorizons sinked, 11 dead, many missing, economical impact for the victims, environmental impact, financial impact for the company.
BP failed to assess how much oil was surfacing, then what would happen to fisheries, restaurants, environment, wild life etc. when and if the oil reach the coastal areas.
2- identify the resources to solve the problem:
There were people willing to help, people willing to share their knowledge, private boats, local, state and federal government that if informed would have been willing to help.
3 Segment the problem in sections:
3.1 Technical a commission should have been formed immediately after the accident, like the one is now trying to plug the well.
3.2 environmental commission to asses how much damage is being done and gather the affected citizens attention before the oil reach their coasts
3.3 Public Relations - political to inform the citizens that Hayward is concern and inviting them to participate in solving their common problem.
3.3 Financial. To stop the stock price collapse BP should have reached out early suspending the dividend, but making a stock split to shake the market and push the stock value down, so the money not used to pay the dividend can be used for stock re-purchase artificially raising it to avoid total collapse.
3.4 To work public opinion all affected fisheries should have been hired to curtail oil spread forming pots to be picked up by specialized ships. This actions would have stop the disastrous beach spill from occurring.
4. Implementation of the coordinated effort of the commissions and segments. Hayward should have been there, at the top of the pyramid.
5. Evaluation and prevention.
Gross negligence was the culprit. The equipment failed, the work force was insufficient, the people were overworked and under trained, corners were cut to the breaking point, irresponsibility was the norm.
Policy of risk and greed should be replaced by a policy of safety and responsibility.
6. No accountability was the norm; and stupidity, irresponsibility and careless operation was the policy.
RESULT Hayward should be fired, prosecuted and jailed, and with him all those irresponsible managers and supervisors that failed.

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ChicagoGirl1

I think being wrong happens because people are using outdated or incomplete info, they are detached from the actual processes they are making decisions about or (a big one) they are overloaded and can't process everything that needs to go into that decision to do it right. We live in a world of distractions, lack of sleep and info overload and making a good decision will continue to get more difficult. Admitting you're overloaded may preceed and prevent having to admit you are wrong later.

brent

Three quotes from Reagan's speech accepting responsibility for Iran Contra. I do not see the avoidance the author is claiming:

"The reason I haven't spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth. And as frustrating as the waiting has been, I felt it was improper to come to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous statements, which would then have to be corrected, creating even more doubt and confusion. There's been enough of that."

"First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I'm still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior."

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind."

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David Merzig

My favorite is, "You're right, and I'm wrong.... as YOU usually are." Think about it.

Mantonat

I like to make the distinction between not trying to do something and trying not to do something. This is the difference between intent and outcome. I think it works especially well on children. So when a child says "I wasn't trying to break the window," (or "I didn't mean to break the window,") you can respond with "but were you trying not to break the window?" A lack of intent is not absolution of guilt.

Between spouses, this may lead to additional animosity.

Anne

My parents came up with the following 'apology speech' which is usually delivered in a light tone, sometimes with prompting from the 'right' party...it's become something of a joke among their friends, and my boyfriend and I have been known to break it out on occasion. It always makes us laugh, and having 'prepared' words makes it a lot easier to get started. It goes like this:

I was wrong.
You were right.
I'm sooooooo sorry.
You look beautiful tonight!
Would you like to make love?

Obviously best used in the context of a relationship, not, say, apologizing for a national scandal.