Admitting that one is wrong is not easy. The monster of insecurity and the red face lurks when you have to sing the mea culpa. Above all, if it happens at work and, even more so, if someone who asks for explanations is your boss. But, contrary to what popular culture rumors, recognizing an error reinforces credibility and is a sign of a practical and realistic mind. According to several experts, it also helps to increase the productivity of the company: to begin to solve the problems that have arisen from an error, the first thing to do is admit that they are there.
Science is a perfect place to find examples of the importance of saying aloud: "I was wrong". Scientists expect to have to rectify all the time. In fact, the scientific method itself is based on that: hypotheses that will be accepted or rejected throughout the investigation, valid theories until proven otherwise … and require scientists to recognize when they are wrong. The increase of the data and the improvement of the methodology can throw to the ground an experiment whose conclusions, now erroneous, have been accepted by the scientific community for a long time. And nothing happens.
In 2017, for example, there were mathematicians who threw down their own investigations when they saw that the data did not fit and economists who retracted their work when they realized that they had classified their data in an erroneous way. Far from generating distrust, this reinforces their credibility. As imperfect humans, seeing someone rectify connects with our own insecurities: I believe it because it has happened to me too.
This also translates to the way of operating of the companies that, with the advance of the technology, every time they have to run more risks when innovating and transforming their activity. And taking risks implies, in all probability, to be wrong. Accepting this is a pending issue for many companies that still associate error with failure. Given this scenario, experts from the consultancy Hays point out that fostering a culture of error from a positive point of view is key to strengthen their teams and attract the best talent. "Companies that know how to encourage this acceptance of errors will be positioned as the most prestigious," they say in Hays.
The business culture also has to understand the individualism of the workers and their ability to have critical and own thinking. This involves letting them make decisions and, once again, assume the probability that they are wrong. The employee gains mental and emotional health, feeling stronger and more secure; and the company gains in productivity, because giving support to their employees when they make mistakes makes it easier for them to recognize their mistakes on a regular basis. Self-criticism is a task that contributes to improving job performance. Counting an error out loud is the first step to begin to fix it and prevent it from becoming chronic.
If being able to recognize mistakes reinforces credibility and helps increase productivity, why is it so hard to do so? One of the explanations is the fear of humiliation and the ability of the wrong person to be questioned. In this situation, cognitive dissonance comes into play, that is, the mental mechanism we use to protect ourselves when what we think and what we do is contradictory. We believe ourselves to be rational and intelligent people, and when we find information that contradicts this idea we reject it. Admitting that we are wrong is painful for the perception we have of ourselves. When we apologize for having made a mistake, we have to accept that dissonance, even if it is not pleasant.
There is also another mental mechanism that contributes to keeping someone in their thirteenths: confirmation bias. It is about the reasoning that we do when we are defending a position (ours, the right one). It is one of the most known and studied by psychology. It could be summarized that we only hear what supports our opinion. Officially, it is that we accept without further evidence that support our ideas while we are skeptical with those who are contrary, considering them partial or interested. As Michael Shermer explains in The believing brain, we react emotionally to conflicting data and then rationalize why we like it or not.
Having reference models that admit being wrong helps fight the fear of consequences. It is also important to learn to identify the usual justifications. "If it's obvious to everyone that you've made a mistake, being stubborn shows people a weakness of character, rather than a strength," explains Tyler Okimoto, an associate professor of psychology at New York University. "In a way, apologies give a sense of power to those who receive them."
With this statement comes an unexpected turn of events: refusing to apologize after making a mistake may have some psychological benefits, as confirmed the research carried out by Professor Okimoto and published in the magazine European Journal of Social Psychology. The results of this study show that not recognizing the errors increases the sensation of power of the subject and this can contribute to improve also their self-esteem. But of course, the boundary between this position and a narcissistic behavior is quite diffuse.
The culture of denial and shame associated with making mistakes in the field of medicine prevents doctors from talking about these mistakes and using them to learn and improve. Telling stories of his experience, physicist Brian Goldman highlights the importance of doctors talking about this situation in this TED video.
The organization Personal Skills Development offers an online behavior guidance course focused on reinforcing the ability to recognize errors. It has about 30 hours duration and poses a cycle of exercises for 8 days to acquire this ability. It is an eminently practical course that aims to detect patterns, be more aware and reinforce self-confidence.
In 2009, the biologist Daniel Bolnick published an article with an interesting finding: fish with different diets have different types of bodies. It was a discovery very well received by the scientific community, but when a colleague tried to replicate his analysis in 2016 he discovered that a line of code was badly written. Everything went to the rack. Bolnick told him immediately and made a public rectification. To his surprise, the response was overwhelming and very positive, both from his colleagues and from the networks.