In a world of uncertainties, a few things stay true. What goes up must come down, for example. That whole death and taxes axiom seems pretty consistent. One more thing that stays true? Everyone is wrong sometimes. With the exception of those who are wholly narcissistic, we all recognize that last one as objectively true. But when it comes to the day-to-day, when it comes to personally admitting that we were wrong about something? Well, that can be a bit more complicated.
We see this phenomenon on a grand scale when it comes to the intersection of politics and media. Take the QAnon conspiracy, which rose in popularity to such a point that it boiled over into an insurrection. The utter failure of the insurrectionists to accomplish their goals was nowhere near the first failed promises of QAnon. Yet the conspiracy persisted — and grew — as circled dates on the calendar passed with no prophecies fulfilled. While some quietly left the cause, convinced of its emptiness, others grew louder in their loyalty and certainties, clinging to lies regardless of facts as clear as “the sky is blue.”
One of the great losses of a doubling-down era is the beauty of nuance. When the truth is dismissed out of hand by those who choose to believe in an alternate reality, opportunities for conversations that feature a range of legitimate positions — or value truth while embracing diverse opinions — shrink.
From corporations to governments, families to churches, we see all around us the fallout of individuals — especially leaders — who refuse to admit when they’re wrong. In the most severe cases, evils like abuse have flourished under the authority of individuals who determine themselves infallible and refuse to heed the cautions or correction of others. The internet overflows with divisive arguments over facts and truth, and over who gets to define it. A quick scroll through Facebook accosts us with a master class in changing the goalposts, making accusations, and doubling down.
For the Christian, the idea that we are at times — and often — wrong, is not only self-evident but an essential tenet of our faith. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no one who has done good, not even one.
The word for sin that’s used in Scripture doesn’t always refer to moral failing. It’s chatta’ah — the Hebrew word used to describe missing a mark, like when an archer’s arrow fails to meet the center of the target. While we are often wrong in ways that should be categorized as immoral, we also often “miss” in simpler ways.
Even when it comes to missteps, many of us struggle to own up to our errors. Jasmine Hu, associate professor of management at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, researches pro-social leadership in teams, specifically how qualities like humility and servant leadership affect various categories like employee retention, team effectiveness, and company culture. I asked Hu to explain some of the psychology behind why people, especially leaders, struggle to admit their wrongness in ways both large and small.
“In psychology, there is a natural human tendency to keep a very positive self-evaluation in front of others,” Hu said. “So, it’s not fun to admit your mistake when you make one.”
Similarly, Bradley Brummel, associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Tulsa, told me that he believes fear, guilt, and shame are the primary reasons people will refuse to admit they are wrong.
“Either the fear of getting punished, the guilt for not delivering on a promise or expectation, or the shame of just feeling like they’re a bad person because of [whatever they did or didn’t do]. And so then, if you’re feeling any of those things, you essentially try to close off that judgment from outside.”
Wrongdoing, even in mistake form, reveals us to ourselves. We are reminded of our fallibility and vulnerability. We’re forced to behold ourselves for the flawed people we are beneath the personas we craft and present to the external world. And if we lack a rich theology of grace and forgiveness, a community we trust to be merciful even in accountability, or the habit of confession, we may find ourselves quickly plummeting into a downward spiral at the thought of admitting we’re wrong.
Because admitting wrongness isn’t a normalized part of American culture, even those who may want to experience the potential catharsis of confession and forgiveness often don’t know where to start, especially in the workplace where productivity is praised and error or inefficiencies may be punished. But studies show that admitting wrongdoing in the workplace can have a positive effect on everything from company culture to productivity.
“One realm in which increasing, or selecting for, willingness to admit wrongness might be important is the workplace,” write Adam K. Fetterman, Shelby Curtis, Jessica Carre, and Kai Sassenberg in an academic paper called “On the Willingness to Admit Wrongness: Validation of a New Measure and an Exploration of its Correlates,” published in the journal Personality and Individual Difference.
“Previous work has shown that honesty/humility and agreeableness have numerous implications for the workplace (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Lee, Ashton, & de Vries, 2005). As willingness to admit was significantly associated with both honesty/humility and agreeableness, it is likely that wrongness admission would also be impactful in workplace situations. As an example, a supervisor signaling humility or agreeableness by admitting wrongness in an argument might have downstream impacts on workplace emotion, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behaviors, and counter-productive workplace behaviors (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005).”
Brummel explained that, despite the fact that we now have a good deal of data — not to mention anecdotal evidence — to support the idea that admitting wrongness can benefit individuals and workplaces, we still lack a solid core of examples.
“There are so few models of actual really good accountability that people can see,” said Brummel. “If you’ve seen someone say, ‘you know what? I didn’t do that thing I was supposed to. I fell short of what I was supposed to do and here’s why, here’s what I would need to not do it again,’ — just purely that part of an apology where they don’t try to game it so that they don’t experience consequences — [that gives you a model to replicate].”