Which is more difficult? To admit your mistakes or to admit someone else was right?

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Perhaps the hardest thing to do at work (and in life) is to admit when someone is right, especially if you disagreed with them.  In many books on management and learning organizations, we hear about the need to admit when we made a mistake or the organisation made the wrong policy choice.

Management theorists often tell us that good managers are able to admit their mistakes and learn from them just as good organisations (successful ones) are able to admit mistakes and learn from them.  The learning organisation can look at what to do.  The challenge, I was to look at though is related but different. When and how do you admit when someone else was right?

From the challenge of logic, admitting someone is right is hard because there has to be a basis for judging someone is right independent of their assertions.  As Erik Crabbe pointed out in a famous theorem, whoever is right can be judged right.  The challenge for a manager is related because a learning organisation should have a process by which decisions are judged right.  Krabbe’s discussion of the logical theorem and what it means to be right and to be judged right is worthy of its own discussion. The focus, here though, is on what it means in terms of management culture.

We know that an organisation reveals its culture in the ways in which it deals with people who make mistakes. We also know that a healthy corporate culture encourages people to admit their mistakes and not hide them.  A healthy corporate is open to change, challenge, and encourages communication.

What the management literature does not discuss is how managers admit that someone else was right.  The point is not that admitting someone was right and you were wrong.  As such, it is not a zero sum process. Instead, it is more complex and subtle.  The issue is how senior managers react when their subordinate’s idea was the better. A manager may find it easier to admit when they were wrong; than they are to admit, someone else was right.  For some managers, the danger of losing face is too great.  As with mistakes, they will never admit it.  For others, it is too threatening to their authority because a senior officer may have to admit a junior officer made the right call. However, the issue moves from the internal political dynamic within an organisation, to how the organisation works as a decision making body.

The underlying issue in admitting someone else was right is more than judging someone right and someone wrong.  The issue is how decisions are made and reviewed. We find difficulty in admitting someone else was right because our decision process does not allow us the space to consider it or deal with the issue.  As Krabbe mentioned, the challenge is not just being right but being judged to be right.  In this case, the managers need to investigate how and why the decision making process led to a sub-optimal decision on the issue.  As such, the ability to admit that someone was right is suggestive of a learning culture.  An organisation that can assess its performance, and admit when the right decision was not taken is a learning organisation.  Too often, though, the sub-optimal decision is glossed over and failure becomes an orphan because there is no method for judging a decision right.  The outcome or the effect of the decision is assumed the final judge, yet the organisation is in danger of making the wrong decision repeatedly because it is not able to admit that the better decision existed.

So, the next time you are found to have made the right call on a decision, look at how your peers and your senior managers react.  How they react tells you about the organisation.  You are going to have a sense of how the organisation works before that moment, yet it will show how senior managers’ deal with the challenge of getting it wrong and how they go about making it right.  An important step in that process is being able to admit that someone else was right.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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