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The Quiet Art of Being Wrong

In politics. At church. Online. Just look around and you’ll see we’ve got an addiction to being right — and loudly. Is it truth we’re after or something else?

“[When] we’ve put honesty over our own self-esteem. It’s a very courageous action.”

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].”

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In an article titled “When Parents Say ‘I’m Sorry,’ They Are Saying So Much More” at Psychology Today, Kate Roberts writes that “When parents apologize they are instilling a value system and a belief that it’s okay to be human and therefore imperfect. They are role-modeling accountability. They are demonstrating that taking action to accept responsibility after a mistake is more important than the mistake itself.”

This idea runs counter to the thought that many people have about authority — which can often sound like the phrase “the customer is always right,” except it’s “the person in charge is always right.” Children who grow up with parents who don’t model admitting wrongdoing may feel extreme shame when they make mistakes in adulthood, because they grew up believing that to be a mature adult is to be a person who no longer makes any errors. But the opposite, of course, is true. The mature adult isn’t only the person who still makes mistakes, but who doesn’t lie about them. 

“Being wrong is not the same as being weak,” writes Roberts. Strength often looks like letting those around us see our weaknesses. It’s the covering up of our mistakes, not the committing of them, that actually demonstrates cowardice. 

Hu offered a similar line, noting that if our natural instincts include fear and shame, then admitting wrongness doesn’t only take effort, it takes an act of bravery. 

“If we bravely acknowledge our own limitations and mistakes, it’s actually a sign and reflection of courage, honesty, and humility, because we’ve put honesty over our own self-esteem. It’s a very courageous action,” she said. 

Hu pointed out times when people do not know they’ve erred, which can, of course, also lead to a lack of admitting wrongdoing. She cited what’s called the  Dunning-Kruger effect, which refers to a study conducted by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Dunning and Kruger found that people tend to “hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.” 

The effect is so severe, in fact, that when Dunning and Kruger administered tests in humor, grammar, and logic, the test takers  and Kruger found that people  who scored in the bottom quartile of a test not only scored within the 12th percentile — an alarmingly low score — but they believed themselves to have scored somewhere around the 62nd percentile. 

You can imagine how this may play out in the workplace. 

Hu explained that, in general, employees who exhibit narcissistic or arrogant characteristics are more likely to be selected as team leaders. Narcissism and arrogance do not lend themselves to admitting wrongdoing or to having an accurate self-view — in fact, they stand in direct opposition. This means that whether or not the leader is able to see the mistakes they’ve made — or outright sins they’ve committed — they are very unlikely to admit them. And the fallout can be severe.

Hu noted that workplace leaders who haven’t cultivated the ability to see and admit when they are wrong often reject others’ suggestions, fail to be open-minded, and are less likely to empower others. Creativity is stifled, mistakes are scorned, or even punished, and experimentation can dwindle enough to have net negative effects on profit margins. Leaders who can’t admit their mistakes are more likely to have companies with high turnover rates, Hu said, and to foster a culture of survival rather than a culture of learning and thriving. 

Brummel added that leaders who fall short but cannot bring themselves to say so often engage in a phenomenon called self-deceptive enhancement. The line of thinking, Brummel explained, goes like this: “I didn’t deliver on this project, but no one else could have but it wasn’t my fault because I wasn’t given the resources.” 

Caught between the evidence that says they’ve erred and the drive to present a positive self-image, leaders who are unable or unwilling to admit mistakes have to create illusions that describe why what they did, or failed to do, isn’t really an error. Maybe they believe the illusion themselves, maybe they don’t. The point is seeking to inhabit a story in which they are never, ever, the villain or the dunce. 

If we just had a bigger budget. If I just had a smarter team. If everyone would just listen to me. If this woman you gave me hadn’t given me the fruit of the tree.

The thing about illusions is that they can be partially made up of truths. It could be the case that a leader made a mistake due to the exhaustion of being overworked, which could be, in part, a byproduct of under-staffing, a low budget, or unreasonable management. But the fact remains that the leader still made the mistake — and that refusing to admit it actually obfuscates the truth in such a way that the circumstances that may have contributed to the error can’t actually be observed, learned from, and addressed. 

If an illusion creates the impression that not only was the error not actually an error, but that anything negative at all is someone or something else’s fault, it’s hard to even begin to find a common vocabulary or understanding for responding to the error. When leaders have the bravery to admit their mistakes, owning up to their errors and accepting consequences for them when necessary, they facilitate the type of freedom and relief among their teams that can lead to honest conversations about helping one another avoid certain types of mistakes in the future. 

Hu affirmed what Christian teaching has long held that admitting mistakes doesn’t make leaders appear cowardly or weak. Rather, it reveals that they are “relatable, human, likable, and warm.” Ownership of wrongdoing increases a leader’s trustworthiness, and when a leader doesn’t admit a mistake that everyone later finds out about, the leader is generally going to be seen as arrogant and untrustworthy. 

“Leaders need to understand that making mistakes is an important part of the leadership journey,” said Hu. “Especially in continually changing environments, mistakes are a norm! I’m not suggesting leaders need to be reckless, but that when they make mistakes they can own them, admit, and learn from them.

“The best leaders know that creativity means making mistakes and taking risks,” Hu said. “Mistakes can be the best teacher. That’s a starting point for learning entirely new things.”

Both Hu and Brummel emphasized the importance of accountability when it comes to leaders learning how to acknowledge, admit, and learn from their mistakes. Leaders are always leading by example — whether that example is good or bad. If teams and employees have the opportunity to see their leaders relying upon, desiring, and even accepting correction from others to whom they’re held accountable, those teams and employees are far more likely to feel safe doing the same. Brummel encourages Christian leaders not to see admitting wrongdoing as merely a part of their justification — but as an ongoing role in their sanctification process. That mental shift, he says, can help people turn from a shameful mindset about their mistakes and sins, and embrace a growth-oriented posture. The leader who understands admitting wrongdoing as a part of the human experience will be freed up not to be reckless, as Hu cautioned, but to find and facilitate the grace and freedom to say, “Of course I’m not perfect,” or “Of course I’m not good at this yet — but I’m trying.”

Brummel once coached someone at a C-Suite level who, after four or five sessions with Brummel said, “I’ve told you more vulnerable things in these few meetings than I’ve told anyone in a decade.” 

This leader had no true peers or confidantes in his life, no safe place for admitting and reckoning with mistakes, which likely led to making more of the same types of errors — something that likely could have been avoided had this leader had a place to process and share. Conversations like this have convinced Brummel that all leaders need a strong peer group or coach in order to “try on” admitting wrongdoing, the practice of authenticity, and what it looks and feels like to be within and cultivate safe spaces. 

In addition to accountability and safe spaces for admitting wrongdoing, psychologists have found another positive element that may help persuade leaders to shift their approach when it comes to owning mistakes. Art Markman points to a paper that found that the more strongly people believed that they could change, the more likely they were to take responsibility for their mistakes.”

And this, of course, brings us back to Brummel’s perspective on admittance of wrongdoing as a mode of sanctification, as the organizational analog to a spiritual practice. We do not have to live as people who fear punishment, and we don’t have to cover our nakedness with self-sewn leaves.   We’re already covered in the robes of Jesus. And in our smallest mistakes and largest failings — even as leaders — we can grow strong through weaknesses. It just starts with admitting them.   

“Mistakes can be the best teacher. That’s a starting point for learning entirely new things.”

This story is from Common Good issue
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