Here’s Why People Won’t Admit They’re Wrong

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It’s been our default mode since we were still in disposable underpants (or cloth, if that’s your thing — don’t judge me).

From the time we were kidlets, if given the choice between admitting we were wrong — or had made a mistake or done something we weren’t supposed to — and doing…well…almost anything else, we usually opted for whatever “anything else” was.

We blamed siblings for things (sorry, Justin). We avoided apologizing by getting defensive (sorry, Mom and Dad). We deflected and rationalized (sorry, everyone in my whole life).

The more interesting question, though, is why. And it’s especially interesting and relevant when thinking about it within the context of leadership, culture, and team dynamics.

Why do some folks find it especially difficult to admit they’re wrong about something? Why is it so hard for certain individuals to admit mistakes?

As leaders, it’s important to wrestle with this so that we can increase our level of self-awareness and understand where our own reluctance to own and acknowledge our failures might come from.

Leaders should wrestle with why it's difficult to admit mistakes. What's the root cause? #leadership Click To Tweet

As teammates, it’s important to understand why this reluctance might be present in ourselves as well as in our teammates.

There are so many reasons and combinations of reasons that folks can’t or won’t apologize, and clearly, some are simpler than others. Another thing to note, of course, is that this isn’t an exhaustive list; but having at least a very cursory understanding of some of these things should enable us to be a bit more empathetic and human with our fellow imperfect, human, teammates.

Teammates should serve each other by being empathetic & vulnerable together. #companyculture #hr Click To Tweet

Why is it so hard for people to admit they’re wrong?

Defensiveness

Now, at first you might think defensiveness is only how people avoid admitting they’re wrong, but what I mean to point out here is that defensiveness is not exclusively the how part. There are times when defensiveness is so ingrained in someone that it is just their default reaction to anything. So in that sense, because they’re so bent on maintaining that stance, defensiveness itself can be why they’re unable to admit they’re wrong or apologize for something.

Equating identity and actions

Some folks have a really hard time distinguishing between actions and identity. So subconsciously, they feel like if they admit they did something they shouldn’t have, it’s nearly tantamount to them saying they’re a bad person. Or, for example, if they were wrong in their assessment of a situation at work, they must necessarily be unintelligent or dumb. That’s why an admission of wrong or an apology can be terrifying.

Pride

This one’s fairly obvious, right? To admit you’re wrong is to admit that…well…you’re wrong. Less than perfect. Not as great as you portray to others that you are. Fallible. Not flawless.

For someone who’s allowed pride to consume them, this makes it nearly impossible for them to admit and own a mistake with any sort of sincerity.

Pride prevents people from owning & acknowledging mistakes. #leadership #companyculture Click To Tweet

Experiencing shame instead of guilt

For most people, admitting we’re wrong or saying we’re sorry for something may have feelings of guilt that have preceded and/or accompany it, but other folks experience shame, which is quite different. Shame is related to who we are as individuals, while guilt is tied to what it is that we’ve done.

So as you can imagine, if it’s shame — not guilt — that accompanies admitting they’re wrong about something, it makes sense that some people avoid it at all costs.

Believing apologizing equals absolution for everyone else

Some people think that if they apologize for something, it is essentially their way of saying that the entirety of whatever it is that happened is their fault. Now in some cases, that may be true; but in other cases, it may not be. In situations where it’s not, that can prevent some folks from owning their mistakes. They incorrectly view an apology as absolving everyone else involved, when in fact an apology is really a brave and vulnerable step toward resolving a conflict.

What’s the bottom line?

Much, though certainly not all, of this comes down to how vulnerable and human we’re able to make our environments. As leaders, it’s on us to be the first to step up and be vulnerable, admit mistakes, apologize when we should, and cultivate a very human, real culture on our teams and within our organizations.

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