Why We Don’t Admit We’re Wrong

This needs to change. Especially if you're in a position of leadership.
03/28/2017 10:32 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2017
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By: Joanne Vitali

“Johnny did it!” yelled the little girl, pointing her finger at her younger sibling. Broken glass pieces littered the floor around them both.

We can all relate to this scene, having played either the role of Johnny, the “blamed,” or (worse) the little girl, the “blamer.” It turns out that our tendency to avoid admitting we did something wrong goes way back. But why is this?

This is a topic worth investigating since there’s a lot of talk right now about whether President Trump should admit he was wrong and apologize for his wire tapping tweets. Trump is not the first person in power to be in this situation. I’m sure you also see this play out all the time in your own workplace. It’s very upsetting to see our leaders play these types of avoidance games. They cause us to lose faith, with the result being that we learn not to trust them.

So, why do we avoid admitting our mistakes?

Our knee-jerk reaction when caught in a misdeed is to avoid taking responsibility by:

1. Blaming someone else,

2. Getting defensive, or

3. Rationalizing a wrongdoing with some sort of story line we create.

With maturing self-awareness, we learn to recognize when we are about to commit one of these three sins. This recognition is truly a basic skill of self-awareness for all of us, and especially for those of us in leadership positions. It allows us either to stop ourselves before we commit one of the sins or to realize it after the fact.

Unfortunately, there are those among us who have gotten into a habit of doing one or all three – consistently. What’s up with that?

I know a senior leader who routinely committed all three sins almost daily. She was especially skilled at spinning stories to back up her chosen narrative. When approvals were delayed for a product, she created a story that the wrong vendor was selected and that she had been forced into the decision to select that particular vendor. She went on to blame other senior managers and even junior staffers for ‘forcing’ this selection, even though she was the one who ultimately had signed the contract. She never took responsibility for her mistakes and paid the price in mistrust by her staff.

There’s a lot of advice about how to apologize appropriately when we commit a faux pas. This isn’t about those methods; it’s about why we don’t want to apologize in the first place or even to acknowledge that we did anything wrong at all. Turns out we can blame it all on our brain. In the blink of an eye our brain processes as a threat any situation where we are exposed as being wrong. Our subconscious instantly registers a drop in our perceived status and we feel less than other people.

Since status is a major driver of our behavior, we will go to extreme measures to protect or increase it. Status is a primary reward or, in this case, the drop in status is a threat. “Because of the intensity of the status-drop experience, many people go to great lengths to avoid situations that could put their status at risk.”[1]

In addition, this perceived drop in status activates the same brain regions as physical pain. Yes, physical pain. So of course we want to avoid that feeling.  We go into a Flight/Fight response, which means that our primal limbic system is aroused. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released. Our prefrontal cortex, where we process information, is compromised and we literally do not think as clearly.

Understanding these brain reactions is helpful in allowing us to be more compassionate with ourselves when in these situations. But, it’s not an excuse for our failure to take responsibility for our mistakes. We need to be aware of the effects that having to be right all the time can have on those we work with.

Bottom line, we all need to learn to admit when we are wrong and to take responsibility appropriately. This goes double for those in leadership roles.

John Maxwell sums it up very well:

“(An individual) must be big enough to admit (their) mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

Joanne Vitali is a professional certified coach and workshop leader who specializes working with women with technical or multiple degrees - Geek Girls. Contact her to speak at your upcoming women’s event (Lead Like a Goddess is her signature topic) or for a complimentary exploratory session.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

[1] Your Brain at Work, David Rock, p. 190

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