Happenings in your life, your behavior, and the behavior of others need an explanation that makes sense to us. Humans are hard-wired to seek an explanation for things and are constantly assembling beliefs about how the world works, the behavior of others, and more.
When you don’t have an explanation, you make one up. And, what you make up may be accurate and truthful or not. But the explanation you create becomes your truth. You will gather information to support that belief from that point onward and reject information that doesn’t support it.
The fact that you want to “be right” further complicates this justification of your self and your beliefs. So if you put an explanation out there, the last thing you want to do or will do is say, “I was wrong.” Who wants to be wrong?
When you make a mistake and are disappointed with your behavior, you will likely make up a self-justifying explanation, so you don’t have to say, “I was wrong.” No one is immune to this.
Read more to see how this plays out in real life and what you can do to avoid disasters from error-filled stories.
Remember the last time the behavior of another person confused you. It might go something like this. You weren’t sure what was going on but, after a pointed debate in a staff meeting, you suspected Lane was angry with you. You speculated about what might be happening and the more your story made sense to you, the more confident you became in it. You were sure that Lane was angry with you although there was no objective confirmation. You talked to others about it and they suggested you were over-reacting since Lane was not known to get angry like that. Your story about the situation began to affect the way you looked at Lane, the way you behaved toward Lane, and your self-esteem regarding your ability to have a successful relationship. You saw Lane’s every action as confirming your original assumption – “Boy, Lane is mad at me.” Others could not see what you were seeing. After a while, your story began to influence how you related to others as well. You became insecure and thought that everyone might be mad at you. How could you know for sure if Lane was mad at you (or not)? You could ask.
The customer service in your business wasn’t meeting your expectations. You speculated about what might be happening and created an explanation for the problem. Though Shawn, the customer service manager, had a stellar reputation in your organization, you decided that Shawn may be the problem. No, wait, Shawn was the problem. Others did not believe it and told you so in no uncertain terms. The more you thought about it, the more you believed your story to be true – It’s Shawn. Everything you saw and heard was filtered through your beliefs about the situation and further confirmed for you that Shawn was the problem. You told your story to others and, based on your story, some began to create their own stories about the situation – Yep, Shawn was the problem. You dismissed Shawn (allowing Shawn to resign, of course). Weeks later, you discovered that failed communication on your part could be the source of the inadequacies in customer service. But, no one could convince you that you contributed to the issue – ever. How could you have avoided losing a stellar employee such as Shawn? Investigate, assess, communicate and ask, “How else could I look at this situation?”.
One last example. You heard that a former colleague, Taylor, was looking for a new job and you invited Taylor in for a visit. You want to look good and for people to think well of you so you quickly and willingly offered Taylor the job as COO along with several promised benefits, including a partnership at some point in the future. Taylor, in accord with the job description given, found numerous deficiencies in policies and procedures which could have legal implications for the future. When Taylor presented these deficiencies as well as recommended plans to correct them, you knew that, if the issue was real, the actions were needed. You felt threatened because you failed to address the deficiencies already yourself and now you resist Taylor. Then, Taylor pressed the issue and became a painful, persistent problem for you. Now, Taylor was the issue since you could not bear to be wrong about the deficiencies. You spent much energy supporting your beliefs and telling others that Taylor must be looking at the data wrongly, must not know the company well, must have bad intentions, must not have enough experience, or is simply an obnoxious idiot. You could not see the objective data and gathered only information that supported your beliefs and made you right. Taylor was dismissed amidst significant conflict. You hired a consultant to fill the gap and the consultant put the needed policies and procedures into place. The story goes that Taylor kept you from getting the policies in place, was putting pressure on everyone else, and was the problem all along. Your story preserves your self-confidence, self-esteem, and makes you “right.” You feel better with this story although there’s this lingering sense that there was something right about Taylor. Now, Taylor is the explanation for several problems past and present. What’s the truth here?
You can override these very natural inclinations to reconcile beliefs not based in fact and to self-justify.
- Recognize that most people who are smart, competent, have good intentions, and are decent make mistakes, errors, and have failures — sometimes big ones. This includes you. Mistakes do not define you, they shape you.
- Be honest with yourself. Reducing the difference between what you believe, and the facts of the situation requires ongoing self-reflection that is painful. But it’s a fact of life. This very healthy self-reflection involves our thinking about our hopes that are unrealized, opportunities we saw and lost, mistakes and our idealized self, and the disappointment in self at the challenges we did not meet.*
- Be a learner who is
- Willing to look at other points of view. We all have biases toward our own way of thinking. The most basic and dangerous bias or belief is that we always see things clearly and therefore have no bias (naïve realism).*
- Open to real evidence. Recognize that your first thoughts and constructs may not be true. Make others convince you.
- Courageously looking at your thoughts and actions as if you were looking at someone else. Try to judge them objectively. Enlist the help of others as sounding boards.
- Take responsibility for your thoughts and actions, including the mistakes. Practice saying this aloud to yourself, “I take full responsibility . . . I made a mistake.” When you need it (and you will) you’ll be ready. Taking responsibility in this way shows outstanding leadership, will attract healthy, responsible people, and inspire those around you. (contact me for stories about this).
- Forgive yourself and others. A mistake is not about who you are, it’s about something you did. From Tavris and Aronson, “When I, a decent, smart person, make a mistake, I remain a decent, smart person and the mistake remains a mistake. Now, how do I remedy what I did?”
- Give others permission to question your thoughts and actions. Be sure to engage people for this whom you trust and not those who may have ill intent.
- Believe that others are rational, decent, smart, and have good intentions rather than jumping to the conclusion that they are the opposite of these.
- Acknowledge blind spots and ferret them out.
- Support others in doing the same as above.
Again, from Tavris and Aronson:
The poet Stephen Mitchell, in his version of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, writes:
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.
At True Course we support and encourage individuals and groups to get to the truth, learn from mistakes, errors, and failures, and come out better for it. They become better leaders who are freer, happier, and have one less stressor.
Contact us today for more information.
*Tavris, Caroll; Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (p. 290, 292, 304, 312 ). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.