Why is it so hard to admit errors?

“I was wrong and take full responsibility.” Don’t you just love to hear someone say these words? And how do you feel when you hear them being uttered? Do you think about the person who says them that “boy, what a failure he is for making a mistake in a situation like this!”, or would your first reaction be more along the lines of “boy, he actually sincerely admitted his mistake! What a generous guy!”?

I stopped watching news and reading newspapers (perhaps more about the reasons for that in another blog post) already few months ago, but even I haven’t been able to avoid hearing about the election funding scandal here in Finland. Apparently one of the largest political parties received funding by rather shady means and it seems rather obvious, that bribery and lobbying was exercised in large extent to the personal gain of certain politicians.

As an avid non-follower of news I do not have the exact details of the scandal, but when I googled about it my expectations were confirmed: Not a single politician has stood up, told the public what exactly happened, and most importantly taken responsibility for the mistakes that they made in the funding process.

Do you think doing so would be a political suicide? I disagree. Even though people tend to be cynical and do not put much trust on large institutions – or good lord, political parties – underneath they have a genuine hunger for honesty and integrity.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which turned out to be a disaster due to faulty intelligence and claims from his military advisers. What he said to the public, however was that an error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it… Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed – and no republic can survive. The final responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was mine, and mine alone.

You think people would have wanted Kennedy’s head on a silver platter for making such a big mistake – much bigger and with much more serious possible consequences than the current Finnish scandal? On the contrary, after admitting the error Kennedy’s popularity soared! Disclosing that one in a position of power can be wrong has a humanizing and trust building effect.

It does not matter whether or not you make mistakes; you need to be able to suck it up, admit your errors and take responsibility. And no, it does not mean coming up with excuses like “I dropped the glass because it was very slippery and sun was in my eyes,” or that “I didn’t stop at a stop sign because I was in a hurry”. Just say that “I dropped the glass. It was my fault, my mistake.” No excuses!

Kennedy did not just admit that a mistake had been made, but he took corrective measures reorganizing the intelligence system and became more critical to the claims of his advisers. In Finland some corrective measures have also been taken after the scandal, but unfortunately we do not have a big enough person who would tell the public the truth and admit the mistakes.

Sometimes it is extremely difficult to admit your errors. Especially if they go strongly against your self-image. In these situations we have a habit of justifying our mistakes by blaming others, or even refusing to admit that a mistake was made in the first place. This is called cognitive dissonance, and is well documented in psychology. For example, if a politician with a strong sense of personal integrity is found to have taken bribes, it is more likely that he will downplay the situation, find a scapegoat or start blaming the media (or his political opponents) for setting him up instead of admitting that he had made a bad judgment call.

No matter how hard it is, I want you to think about some mistake you have made and say to yourself “yes, I was wrong. No excuses. It was my fault.” If there is some other person involved in your mistake, then call them and admit it, or confess to your loved one who knows about the incident even though he or she might have nothing to do with it.

When you are forced to face your own mistakes and take responsibility, it can be an exhilarating and liberating experience. Other people will like you more, as you prove that you are a person with high integrity and values. There is also a good chance that you will eventually get caught on your mistake, so it’s much better and easier to admit it when it’s still a sapling instead of a full-grown tree with roots that run deep.

A great nation is like a great man;
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.

-Lao Tzu

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