How to Admit When You're Wrong
One key to successful innovation often goes overlooked: the ability to admit when you're wrong. As a leader, owning your mistakes is your greatest opportunity to learn and grow. Admitting fault in the right way can make your company stronger and your employees much more comfortable with failure.
"Admitting that you're wrong is a sign of strength," says Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid (Hudson Street, 2013). "It takes character and leadership to do it well."
It also sets an example for your employees, creating a culture where they feel free to experiment and fail. That freedom allows for greater creativity and quicker solutions when people make mistakes.
Practice these five tips to help you own your mistakes in a way that strengthens your company:
1. Take ownership.
As the leader, you are responsible for what goes on at your company, so you need to own the problem and the solution. "Never make excuses," Winch says. "That doesn't strike confidence in a leader."
Commend employees who take ownership of their mistakes as well. By showing respect and support for them, you create a culture that addresses mistakes without blame. "Taking responsibility when things don't work is more conducive to growth," Winch says.
2. Be sincere.
When you deliver an apology, your audience will be looking for signs of a canned or stiff delivery, and they'll take them as signs that you don't mean what you're saying, says Kurt Dirks, a professor of leadership at Washington University who studies successful apologies. To win them over, simply be yourself.
"Trying to go by a script only undercuts the potential impact," Dirks says. "Be who you normally are." That honesty -- in your words and your delivery -- will show that you actually mean it.
3. Show what you've learned.
A good apology explains what happened and why. Start with why you made your original decision and the logic that led to that choice. Next, explain what you learned about why it didn't work and how that new information will inform how you move forward. If you haven't figured out the lesson yet, then you're not ready to deliver the apology. "You should feel empowered," Winch says. "If you don't, then you haven't figured out all the fixes, opportunities, and messages of hope yet."
With any mistake, no matter how small, there is a way to prevent it from happening again. Even if the mistake was simple -- like not thinking through an idea -- you can improve your thought process so it doesn't happen next time. Sharing your lessons will also show your employees how to think about mistakes and move forward.
4. Make proactive changes.
Talk is cheap, so people need to see that you will actually follow through. When you outline your plan for change, mention a step you've already taken toward those ends. "The more specific the better," says Dirks.
For example, you might mention a new process you instated to improve communication or a new approach you're taking in product development. "As long as you can explain how you're rectifying what went wrong and own it, then you'll come across as a person in a position of strength," Winch says.
5. End on a high note.
When you talk about a mistake, acknowledge anyone who might have been harmed in the process. Sometimes, the harm is overt, like in the case of BP's oil spill, but often it's more subtle, like when employees invest hope and time in a project that fails. "If anyone has been harmed, show empathy," Winch says.
But always bring it back to what you learned and how you plan to use this experience as an opportunity to grow. "You want to end with a message of hope in every situation," Winch says.
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