“I was wrong.” Perhaps the three most difficult words in the English language. Uttering that phrase in the workplace can fill people with fear, dread, and vulnerability. The interesting thing is it doesn’t have to. According to Kathryn Schulz, author of the book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, these moments are opportunities to gain personal insights and enhance our relationships with others. At the heart of the challenge of admitting mistakes is identity claiming. Identity claiming is the continual process of expressing how we see ourselves through our words and deeds. When we’re wrong, our perception of identity is challenged. This is made worse when we are wrong in front of others and our identity is not affirmed.
According to the Harvard Business Review, try out these three steps in your next “mea culpa” conversation:
- Say the words. Remember those three little words? Say them. Don’t wordsmith them. Don’t dance around them. Say the words, “I. Was. Wrong.” Feel free to explain your actions and rationale, but don’t cross the line into excuse-making. Ownership of the mistake is job number one.
- Focus on “the now” instead of rewriting the past. Reflections on “coulda, shoulda, woulda” all lead to one response: “Didn’t.” Take the responsibility to focus on what you need to take action on. How do you need to fix the mistake? What were the impacts on relationships? Share these things openly and honestly with the people who really need to hear it.
- What’s next? Too many times, discussions of mistakes lead to defensiveness and “blame-storming” (finger pointing disguised as an accountability discussion). Avoid this trap. Focus on what can and will be done differently in the future. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and feedback in order to keep you to your word.
Making mistakes is nothing new. In today’s world, every mistake you’ve ever made has the opportunity to come back and bite you. The next time you are confronted with one of your own, try a different approach. Odds are that the world won’t come to a crashing end.