Nothing to fear: Admitting your mistakes

“As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes.”  Mel Brooks

I received a very unusual note last week, at least unusual in the business world.  The editor of a technical newsletter to which I subscribe, who is also a leader in this particular technical community, said in part the following:

I’ve failed, miserably, and I’m sorry. I’m writing a somewhat lengthy update now, but there are things I really need to get off my chest and shoulders….I’ve dropped the ball and it’s taken a toll on everything I do…I can’t blame anyone or anything beyond myself. I’ve ultimately been responsible for everything that’s happened, including our inability to make a functioning and profitable company. I’ve been responsible for diverting our attention on far too many diverse operations, diluting our efforts, and making everything less focused.

The writer went on to explain specifically what he felt he had done wrong. Upon reading this, I sent him a note telling him how much I admired his humility and courage.  I also told him to not be too hard on himself, and said that he would be much better off in the long run for taking this responsibility.

In a way, this reminded me of a situation I was in about 15 years ago.  A customer of the IT services I provided wrote to explain of a problem.  I acknowledged that this had indeed been an issue.  I told her I would get back to her when it was fixed, but I carelessly asked that she write back if I didn’t respond in a few days.  I received an appropriate note from her that left me chagrined.  “If it is not your job to do what I have asked you to do, please excuse me and tell me whom to contact.  On the other hand, if I have asked you to do something that is your job, please do not ask me to be responsible for reminding you to do it. I should not be responsible for making sure you do not forget.”  Wow.  Even now, I am embarrassed to read how she correctly assessed the situation.

I am glad to say, though, that the incident had a good ending.  I wrote this customer back and said, “You are entirely correct to point out my error and I apologize. I hope to learn something every day and I thank you for helping me to learn this lesson today.”  To this she said, “This is one of the most professional responses I have ever seen.  I hope that I have the dignity to respond in such a manner.  Thank you.”

You see, I know that something good can be salvaged when we are willing to make a heartfelt apology and admit our wrongs.  As Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Why is it so difficult for some to apologize when wrong? Like many things, I believe it comes down to fear. We manage to deceive ourselves into thinking that an admission of wrongdoing will lead others to take advantage of us, perhaps.  In my experience, I’ve found just the opposite.  When we are willing to properly point out our mistakes, it’s almost as if the other party wants to take up for us.

One of the key points in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is “If you make a mistake, admit it quickly and emphatically.”  Is there any greater sign of strength than admitting your error?  Our culture is littered with those who made things harder for themselves and others by holding out: Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, and so many more.

The next time you know you’ve been wrong, admit it quickly, fully, and emphatically.  Remember, an apology doesn’t count if it’s followed by an excuse.  I think you’ll find that in being your own harshest critic, others will come to your defense.


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