Why can’t people admit it when they’ve made mistakes? I think it’s because they focus on the potential negative consequences and not enough on the benefits that admitting mistakes can have on their careers. It’s irritating when people can’t admit that they’re wrong in any situation, but it seems most annoying when it happens in the work environment.
Now, I’m not talking about when there’s an actual disagreement or when you genuinely don’t realize that you’ve made a mistake. Or when you’ve intentionally done something to screw someone else over. I’m referring to the situation where you know you’ve messed up and you won’t ‘fess up.
Instead, this is what happens…
Mistake-catcher person: “Wait a minute, is this the original, executed deed? Then what got sent over to be filed with the state??”
Mistake-maker person: “Well…um…I gave the whole set to Ms. Administrative Assistant to take care of — I can’t believe she didn’t send it…” (or some other lame excuse/defensive response).
Mistake-maker person: *silence* (hoping if he says nothing, they’ll assume it wasn’t him).
Mistake-maker person: *runs away*
I get it — there are lots of reasons we don’t admit our mistakes. We’re afraid of what may happen — people may think less of us or see us as less competent. And of course, there are other larger consequences, like getting bad performance reviews, getting fired, or even worse, getting relegated to doc review (which you don’t even know how to do because you’re a transactional lawyer). All valid concerns.
But here’s the thing. A lot of times, people already know that you’ve made a mistake. And they often don’t say anything. Why not? Probably because we’re a bunch of spineless, passive-aggressive wimps who try to avoid conflict at all cost. Except when we’re drunk or experiencing road rage.
This is a problem. When your co-workers know that you’ve made a mistake, they often wait for you to admit it. They may even bring up the thing that’s wrong in the document or whatever to see how you’ll respond. When you then react per one of the above scenarios, you’ll actually defeat what you’re trying to achieve — to delude others into believing that you’re competent. Instead, it will make them trust you less and wonder whether you’ll be honest with them about the mistakes they don’t find out about.
But admitting mistakes has its benefits! It sets an example for others (especially if you’re a manager) for doing the right thing and promotes an environment where making mistakes is okay. I know this sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid, but it’s a bad place to work where defensiveness and avoiding blame is the rule — I’ve seen people come out of places like that and these people are scarred for life. Your efficiency decreases and you run out of room in your Outlook email drives because they’re filled to the max with CYA emails.
Also, the most obvious benefit of admitting mistakes is that it gives everyone an opportunity to take care of a problem earlier rather than later. And one thing that’s different about working in-house versus at a firm is that people seem to focus a lot less on who’s to blame for mistakes and more on how to address the problem. (More about this in a future blog post.)
Finally, being able to admit that you screwed up inspires trust, respect and sometimes dumbfounded looks (but in a good way) from others. And your colleagues will worry less that you may be hiding things from them or that you’ll judge them when they make mistakes. So true, there are some mistakes that can get you fired, or recurring mistakes that may limit your advancement. But for the most part, admitting your mistakes will help you get respect and trust, and make for a more pleasant and stress-free work environment. Always tell the truth; it will amaze your friends and confound your enemies — as I always say… when quoting Mark Twain.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.