The human species is fallible—we all make mistakes, right? But if it’s easy to identify and forgive someone else’s missteps, why is it so hard to say the words "I’m wrong" when we’re the ones who messed up?
"Getting something wrong means there's something wrong with us, so we just insist that we're right because it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe," Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, said in the TED talk "On Being Wrong." "Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong."
Being wrong is not fun. It can make us uncomfortable, regretful, and aware of our shortcomings, and often we don’t realize it until it’s too late. Sometimes the result is minor, such as taking the wrong exit off of the highway. Other times the fallout can be quite large, such as betting the farm on a bad investment. While consequences provide enough of a sting, admitting your error to others can make you feel weak.
Leadership consultant Karin Hurt, author of Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, has worked with plenty of managers who struggle to admit their errors. "They’d rather reinvent history and lie, cover it up, or blame others than make an admission," she says. "But your team knows when you were wrong—whether or not you do. In fact, they can see it a mile away."
The irony is that saying "I’m wrong" is extremely powerful and gives you more credibility than avoiding the truth, says Hurt. "Instead of looking weak, you look strong," she says. "It takes confidence and humility to recognize you’re wrong and to admit it. It seems easy, but many of us are completely unable to do it."
So we find ways to justify our actions, say Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). "[Self-justification] allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done," they write. "It minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions."
Saying "I’m wrong," on the other hand, feels risky and as though you could lose credibility. "We get stuck inside this feeling of being right, and stepping outside of that feeling is the single greatest moral, intellectual, and creative leap you can make," said Schulz.
Several years ago, Hurt was working with a team that had decided to implement a new strategy. A senior leader told them that she felt their goal was impossible. "At the time, what she said hurt our feelings, but we decided to continue with our plan," she recalls. "Our strategy was successful, and the senior leader came to us and said, 'Congratulations. I was wrong.’ It was so powerful for the team to hear that. She didn’t have to say that, and her credibility skyrocketed."
"I’m wrong" is a phrase that needs to be learned and is difficult to say, says Rich DeVos, author of Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People. "The beauty of saying ‘I’m wrong and I’m sorry’ is that it quickly ends an argument," he writes. "Once someone admits to being in the wrong, what else is there to say?"
When you’re wrong, Hurt says your admission should be straightforward. "Simply say that you were wrong," she says. "You can add what you learned from it and what you would do differently next time. Articulate the lesson you learned and take accountability."
While you can explain the thought process that led you to the wrong conclusion, be cautious doing this. "You can appear defensive," says Hurt.
And never make excuses for your error, says Hurt. "When you do that, it’s like admitting you were wrong, but claiming that it doesn’t count," she says.
If necessary, apologize for your error, and then don’t do it again. "If you do the exact same thing again, no one will believe that you learned the lesson," says Hurt. "If you keep making mistakes and you’re always wrong, you have a different problem."