I Don't think I am Wrong About This
“I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.”
― Charles M. Schulz
It should be no surprise that the man who popularized the phrase "good grief" would come up with a witty oxymoron to illustrate the all-to-human propensity to err. And our nature doesn't stop there, as for some reason most of us are much more willing to point out the mistakes of others than to admit our own.
In addition to warning us that pointing out the mistakes of others is a sure-fire way to make enemies, Dale Carnegie says that one way to avoid a rebuke is to admit to the mistake first. "The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized."
In my fairly limited experience (not of being wrong, but of admitting so) this is true. Admitting an error is generally taken as a sign that you understand what went wrong and want to improve. In many cases you are better off trusting someone who has made a given mistake in the past not to make it again in the future, rather than handing a matter to someone whose lack of mistakes is simply a sign of inexperience. As it is sometimes put, good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.
In Pre-suasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini takes a slightly different perspective. Interestingly, he argues that a willingness to own up to mistakes is a way of demonstrating authority, one of the six weapons of influence. We want to do business with people we trust, and admitting to a weakness early in one's dealings can generate trust. It is especially effective if the customer or counterparty is already aware of the weakness, as it can demonstrate trustworthiness without doing any incremental damage. Subsequently, when the discussion turns to strengths the trust has already been built.
It could come down to the initial power dynamic. If we admit our mistakes to someone with more authority we earn generosity and understanding. And if we admit our mistakes to someone with less authority we actually solidify our own authority. In either case, admitting the mistake improves our likely outcome.
So why don't we do it more often?