Hillary Clinton recently told Diane Sawyer of ABC News that when she and her husband left the White House in 2001, they were “dead broke.”
That was, to put it mildly, an ill-advised statement, given that the Clintons had earning potential few could dream of and none of the concerns that the truly broke face.
It was the tone-deaf equivalent of comments Mitt Romney made during his 2012 presidential run, attempts to make himself seem like a regular guy rather than a man of enviable wealth. He once said he knew what it was like to get a pink slip (yeah, right) and told unemployed people, “I’m also unemployed.”
Both Clinton and Romney, like most politicians, are guilty of saying dumb things. Imagine how refreshing it would be if they – Romney then and Clinton now – admitted as much. If they said, “Wow, that was a dumb comment, and it sounded out of touch, and I’m really sorry.”
Good would follow, the gaffe would be stopped in its tracks, and respect would be earned, even from some detractors.
Sadly, admitting mistakes isn’t a politico’s strong suit. So let’s exit politics, enter the workplace and hope for better outcomes. All of us – interns, bosses and every person in between – make mistakes. We say something rude, deliver the wrong documents, botch a calculation and throw a project into disarray.
The moment the mistake is realized, there’s a choice: cop to it, own it and embrace it or deny it, dance around it and blame someone else.
One choice is easy, the other hard. One makes you powerful, the other weak.
“I think there’s extreme power in admitting you’re wrong,” said Kerry O’Malley, founder and president of the Texas-based marketing firm Marketects. “I was in a situation where I had made a mistake, and it was a pretty bad one in relation to the work that I do. And I sat across the desk from the client and took responsibility. I just believe when you’re totally honest with people in business or your personal life and you just admit, ‘Hey, I was human. I did this, and I’m looking for ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again,’ people have tremendous respect for that. It really is so rare in this world.”
Guy Winch is a psychologist and author of the book “Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.”
We have difficulty admitting when we’re wrong, in part because we have “misconceptions of what failure means,” Winch said.
“We tend to take failures and mistakes as signs that they say something about our quality, our character or about our abilities,” he said. “What I think is that actually being able to admit that you made the mistake, being able to take responsibility for it, says much more about having character then denying the mistake or fobbing it off.”
Mistakes, he said, often offer the best opportunities to learn, but too many companies have leaders unwilling to acknowledge their own failings. That sets a tone for everyone else and can leave workers and the company as a whole stuck in a cycle of mistakes.
“We don’t actually make a lot of mistakes as individuals; we make a few of them, and then we repeat them in endless varieties,” Winch said. “Once we clue in to what those mistakes are, we can really avoid them in the future. That’s why it’s so important to figure them out and own them.”
Using a term I love because it sounds like the title of a gripping new HBO series, Winch encourages people to become “failure detectives”: “Follow the clues, and figure out where the mistake was; look at more than one mistake, and see if there are connections. We all have our blind spots, so once you clue in to what that blind spot is, you can really take steps to avoid it.”
That’s a fantastic approach. It blends introspection and responsibility and turns the whole mix into a whodunit. (Except in this case, the “who” in whodunit is always you.)
O’Malley said she was raised by parents who encouraged her to admit mistakes. That has carried over to her company, and the result – aside from feeling good about herself – is respect from both clients and employees.
One of her former employees wrote an unsolicited review of O’Malley on LinkedIn, praising her character and ethics.
“You can’t buy that,” she said. “It made me feel really good.”
It made her look good, too, just as admitting a flubbed statement can make a politician look good – or at least human.
So it’s important that bosses and managers set the tone by being willing to say, “Oops. My bad.” And then everyone, from the top down, needs to be introspective enough to examine why mistakes are made.
It will earn you goodwill and show a fearlessness that’s hard to find. Plus you’ll be able to tell people you’re a failure detective.
They may not know what that means, but it sounds pretty cool.