Why It’s Hard To Admit Mistakes At Work


Why it’s hard to admit we’re wrong at work? The short answer is we’re afraid to look bad, but this is especially so if we’re in a senior or managerial position, and we have to admit our mistakes in front of other junior members of the team.

The long answer, well, has more nuance, and I realised sometimes it’s not all just about the ego. It has a lot to do about the internal stories we tell ourselves, and I believe, it is closely related to our amygdala.

For most people, admitting mistakes to people whom we’re close with is easy – for instance, our loved ones, close friends or mentors and teachers. But when it’s in a professional context, our defences are up, and we’re always wary of saying “sorry” or that we’re in the wrong.

After all, there’s plenty of professional advice that advises us not to.

But there’s also the other side of the story. By knowing when and how to apologise and admit our mistakes, we’ll earn more respect from our coworkers and gain more social currency.

The first step, I think, is to understand why and where in our resistance to admitting mistakes lies.

Wired that way

First and foremost, humans are social animals and our self-worth depends on the perspective of others.

Tens of thousands of years ago, when we lived in tribes and villages, making “professional” mistakes was a social death sentence – no one will engage your services anymore if you made a mistake. Trust was lost, and the word would spread like wildfire.

If you were a doctor and you dispensed the wrong medicine to a fellow tribesman, either fatally harming or even killing him or her, the tribe would label you a quack or worse, exile you.

Fast forward to modern day, even though 99.99% of the mistakes we make do not result in social death or exile, that fear is still deeply wired into our brains, specifically, the amygdala – the part responsible for “fight or flight” responses.

According to Inc, psychologists term this fear related to mistakes at the workplace as “psychological rigidity“, a defense mechanism some of us use when faced with the possibility that we’ve committed a mistake at work.

It’s hard to imagine how other coworkers would view us because of our mistake, especially if it’s someone more junior or a peer calling us out. It’s common for us to think: perhaps it’s he or she who got it wrong, not me.

I might not be wrong

And this is the case even outside of work – no one likes being wrong and getting called out. It’s hard to imagine that we make mistakes because we all want to be in control of how we live our lives. We tend to blame our surroundings and not ourselves, and it’s especially so when we’ve worked hard to reach where we are in our careers.

Also, it’s one thing to be wrong, it’s another to get called out for being wrong before we realised it ourselves – that’s just how we are.

Even the most rational people are triggered by criticisms and accusations of being wrong from random individuals, if the subject of attack is something we hold dearly. For instance, our profession or a skill we’ve honed over many, many years, or even decades.

Each attack or revelation that we’re wrong, bruises our ego and reduce our self-worth. This sounds quite dramatic and exaggerated, but it’s true. That’s probably why we seldom see C-Suite executives admit their mistakes publicly, unless there’s a specific reason such as for image reparation after a scandal or colossal screw up – it’s bad for business.

In fact, I personally find it challenging sometimes to admit my own mistake to peers and colleagues, even if it’s a simple test or quiz. I’m learning, though, and the right way and time to apologise appropriately and professionally.

How we should admit and apologise

As a general rule of thumb, don’t be too quick to dismiss someone or the possibility that we’ve committed a mistake. Even if it’s almost impossible we’re wrong in any situation, denying any responsibility or culpability can come off as a reflex of guilt.

Examine the situation, acknowledge the person’s concerns or comments, extract ourselves from the situation and understand what he or she is really talking about. Chances are we’re not the subject of criticism, but something we’ve done or that involves us.

Contrary to what our amygdala’s reactive response is, our coworkers seldom want to make us look bad in front of others. The few who have the worst intentions – it’s only those few and dealing with toxic colleagues is another topic altogether.

In the case where we’re really in the wrong, be sincere, take full responsibility, and validate the comments (and feelings) of others if our mistakes brought any harm to them. The courtesy we show to others will go a long way in not just our career, but our workplace relationships as well.

The next time someone calls us out for our mistake, suppress our amygdala’s fight-or-flight response even if it’s a troll, the one at the receiving end will be pleasantly surprised.

About the author

Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.

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by Vance Wong


Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.