The Power of Admitting a Mistake

Kathie and I are fortunate in many ways. The most obvious is our three adult children and the lives both personal and professional they have crafted for themselves. One of those blessings is the fact I receive some of my very best reading recommendations from them. Such was the case a few weeks ago when Justin placed in my hands Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Published 10 years ago, the book unfolds a compelling treatment of how we self-justify our decisions and the harm that surely follows. I could not put it down!

Near the end of the book, the writers address the topic “Letting Go and Owning Up.” Whereas the previous seven chapters meandered through politics, medicine, leadership, law enforcement, and marriage among others, this one deconstructs how we self-justify personal and business decisions even when confronted with error. Flimsy excuses like “it was the circumstances,” or “I was not myself,” or “everyone else is doing it” abound all the while failing to say what is most needed, “I messed up! This mistake was mine and mine alone.”

Unpacking these weak self-justifying lines, Tavris and Aronson present evidence that proves without question that simply admitting to a mistake is the most powerful, relationally healing response any of us can make. “There are,” they write, “positive reasons for owning up. Other people will like you more. Someone else may be able to pick up your fumble and run with it; your error might inspire someone else’s solution. And when you admit a mistake when it is the size of an acorn, it is easier to repair than when it has become the size of a tree, with deep, wide-ranging roots.”

With persistent focus, I write this blog every week to call both myself and you to face the human potential and pitfalls in this wonderful business. Ours is a people-centered, relationship-nurtured, trust-creating enterprise whose currency happens to be money and investments. Our visible core value is trust. Its foundation is integrity. That said, none of us (including yours truly) is infallible. Even our highest intentions and most reasoned recommendations can go wrong. We make mistakes: have and always will.

It seems to me that in this post-national disasters season of our common life, when houses and boats, trees and light poles look like pick-up sticks strewn across city streets, we have a potential professional disaster staring us in the face. That disaster—of our own making—howls through our practice anytime we make a mistake and fail to say, “I was wrong” or “I gave you less-than my best advice.”

Hear the wisdom from a book published a decade ago. When we admit a mistake, admit it followed by “I apologize,” or “I am sorry” and always, “I have learned from this failure and assure you it will never happen again.” Then notice what happens. Your client or friend, your spouse, children, or neighbor will look up and think and/or say, “he/she really is a human being.” You will witness deeper trust, not less. And in so doing, become even better at this advisory craft to which we have given our lives.

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Comments 1

  1. Very thought provoking and well written. I am wondering though if “ none of us is infallible” and “it will never happen again are congruent.” What about “I apologize for hurting you. What can I do to make it right with you?” And then brace yourself for what you might hear. You may not be able to make it right or you may not be able to promise it won’t happen again. What happens then?

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