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Why some co-workers will never admit to mistakes


I encountered two words the other day that I'd never heard before: unaccountability and sorrylessness. They appeared in an article in the Wall Street Journal, which was about people in the workplace who won't admit to making a mistake. They are my new favorite words.

Admitting to a mistake is never easy. Nobody goes around screwing up just for the pleasure of apologizing. And, admittedly, the modern workplace is more likely to cultivate the "sorryless" among us. There are definite downsides to being wrong at work, especially if it's about something pretty big and lots of people know about it. That kind of mistake often gets imprinted in your "virtual resume." When your image is at stake, you sometimes go to extremes to protect it.

What the sorryless don't realize, however, is that admitting you're wrong is not the same as admitting you're incompetent. If anything, it means you're capable of recognizing a mistake and learning from it.

If, on the other hand, you never admit to a mistake, does that mean you don't know you committed one and you're more likely to unknowingly blunder your way through other situations? Or does it imply that you know you goofed but you will never, ever take responsibility even if you have to throw others under the bus to avoid it?

An even scarier downside to sorrylessness is that sometimes when no one takes responsibility for a problem, it may not get fixed.

Why does this phenomenon happen? Is it a by-product of low self-esteem?

According to Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who did testing on this mindset, it's a kind of delusional behavior. From the WSJ piece:

"In the business world and elsewhere, people either have a healthy belief in growth, whereby they expect to evolve their talents over time, or they possess a fixed mindset, whereby they believe their talents are innate traits that will carry them to the top. They believe mistakes reflect on their deepest abilities and call them into question."

When she tested students on a difficult intelligence test and gave them a chance to look at the results of people who had done better and those who had done worse, the people in a fixed mindset wanted only to look at those who did worse. They didn't learn anything or confront their deficiencies.

Think this is a new thing or a mentality that's been around for a while?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

110 comments
zentross
zentross

"What the sorryless don't realize, however, is that admitting you're wrong is not the same as admitting you're incompetent. If anything, it means you're capable of recognizing a mistake and learning from it." I've been in the unfortunate situation of one member of my work unit would quickly toss a team member under the proverbial bus to save face. Then there was the micromanagement which raised departmental and especially unit stress where some were bound to snap toward this behavior. What can be said about the micro-manager who fails to recognize the employee who takes responsibility and seeks to learn from the situation in order to prevent future occurrences? How about when the one who throws others into freeway traffic is rewarded?

ivoyhip
ivoyhip

Here are some reasons that I had observed in my workplace: 1) Office politic: This happens among different departments. The department which made mistakes lost credibility. 2) People will talk about them behind their back: They have the attitude "I can never say anything bad about myself". Why? If they admit their mistakes, people around them will talk about them behind their back. On the other hand, if they do not admit their mistakes (and there are proof against them), there will be not many rumors. 3) People will be "in your face": This had happened to me several times. I made mistakes and I honestly report to my manager. My manager is nice to me. We are working in a small office. Other coworkers could always hear our conversations. One of my coworker always immediately pounded on my mistakes in my face. Trust me. It is not constructive criticism.

skrying
skrying

I have no problem admitting when I make a mistake. It may look bad at first, but at least I will gain credibility for being honest.

minithumbs
minithumbs

If I know I made the mistake I will admitt it but there are a couple of mistakes that have been blamed on me that were not my fault and that ergs me if they are not going to admitt to a mistake is one thing but to blame it on someone else really is nasty. And I am sure that one time at least a co-worker set me up. One of the problems I have found in IT is that we have too much access to beable to stuff each other up if we are that way inclined

mikifin
mikifin

In interviews I have developed a list of questions that will provoke an incorrect answer. Then I challenge the person and see how they react. If they curl up in a ball or launch out of their chair foaming at the mouth I don't hire them. They are not team material. There is a health response and I look for this. I have developed a series of questions designed to elicit and probe for emotional responses that are not good to have on a team and about 90% they work. The only ones that it misses are the "mimics." I don't know if they are psychopaths but the general description fits but they are almost like a mirror. These are the ones that you need an experienced interviewer to catch and even then you can get fooled.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. there are ways of doing things and there are better ways of doing things. There is no wrong way. I have no problem that I could have done that better. I do have a problem admitting that I was wrong. Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

So someone who convinces you they are team member by giving all the responses a team member would because they know you want a team member and the only way you'll give them a chance is for them to convince you that they are and always will be. Is a psychopath? LMAO I love trick interview questions, they make me re-evaluate on the spot whether I want to work for the twit who asks them. Saves me all sorts of pain and heartache, just get up and leave without wasting anymore of my valuable time. When I go to an interview, if you don't answer my questions 'correctly' , you get culled. I always have another interview to go to, this time it won't be as Flipper's stunt seal. Incorrect response isn't it. :p Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

faradhi
faradhi

Because some thought it was fine to have intercourse with her. You think I should look at that guy and tell him " Hey, You have probably been more right before." I don't think so. How about the mother of the baby I am fostering now. "Sure, you used cocaine while pregnant. While not wrong. There is a better way." That statement is stupid. There are times when people are wrong. Period. -edited because I was WRONG and spelled expletive incorrectly.

maecuff
maecuff

Of course people are wrong from time to time! If you make a mistake and corrupt your companies financial data, do you think they're going to say, "Well, there might have been a better way to do that"? A better way to screw up the data? It's a mistake. And the person who made the mistake, is, in fact, wrong. Admitting that you're wrong isn't a bad thing. You admit to being wrong, then do what you can fix the mistake. And really, let's take this a little further. If you punished your child by beating them until they were brain dead, would you be wrong? Or is that a case of a better way of doing things? Let me answer that one. It's WRONG! How about Jeffrey Dahmer? Is it WRONG to kill and eat other humans? You hit the nail on the head, though. You DO have a problem. Not being able to admit that you are wrong about anything is definitely a problem.

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

What would YOU call it if the final product is not what the customer paid for? What if the product produced does not work? If you take your car in to a garage to have the brakes repaired and the mechanic fails to reconnect the hydraulic lines, resulting in a head-on collision with fatalities, do you believe that that was not the wrong way to repair your brakes?

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

what pills are you taking, I want some! Must be some very powerful meds. So, If I was to say that I can create a fission reacter with 3 twigs and a shoestring, I would be right? Wow, just an alternate (universe) way to do it! Everyone makes mistakes. Most learn from them (but not all). I made a huge one recently, and when I caught it (a bit late), I informed all of the people that needed to know, with details. yeah, I felt like a tardboy afterwards, but the fact that everyone that needed to, knew when I did, it meant that nobody was out of the loop and the proper corrections could be made. In this case, it was data loss that was partially unrecoverable, however it is better than being totally unrecoverable...

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. this is mine. There are ways to do things and better ways. The better ways cost the company less money, in general. You screw up data - you fix it. It took longer than if you had not screwed up, but you got there in the end - well done! Who says that beating someone until they are dead is a BAD thing. You never heard of the middle-east .. how about crucifiction - that was the 'right' thing to do at one time? Ask a cannibal. Is it wrong to eat people? I think you may well receive the answer - NO! It is YOUR opinion that it is 'wrong' to eat people. Don't believe that just because you and your circle of friends believe something, that it is true. Did I say I have a problem with my attitude? That could well be a wrong thing to say. ;-) You should get out a bit more, open your eyes to others opinions and views of the world. Read a bit of SciFi or fantasy. Lots of weird things are described in books, that you might not agree with, but they are not wrong. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

You are arguing with one of the best systems analyst here. It's my job to pick holes in this sort of argument. a) 'Product does not work' - has too many meanings. Do you mean it does not satisfy it's requirements? I have never written nor seen an unambiguous set of requirements. b) I'm sure, that if the mechanic has enough money they can find a lawyer that will argue that the mechanic was not at fault, and win the case. Was OJ Simpson wrong to kill his wife? According to the LA justice system he wasn't. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

It's a way of looking at other people. There are no absolutes in life .. if you really believe that you created a nuclear reactor who am I to contradict? You are not wrong, but I may consider that you come from another universe .. I don't know .. apparently there are other universes where anything is possible. Going through life judging everything you encounter to be 'right' or 'wrong' is a sad way to live. Try to be a little more open-minded. Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

advisable to admit mistakes is, eventually you start believing the bollocks you came out with when someone tried to get you to. At that point you stop learning anything except effective covering up.

nunna
nunna

> See 2 replies ago .. > "because you say 'No!' that makes it true?? This is like debating with a two year old.." > > Yes, I am coming down to a level that I feel this argument deserves. > > I still don't see anything new that has been posted since I last stated that this discussion is going nowhere. > > Les. Perhaps it's not going anywhere because it's not a discussion. As far as I'm concerned, all I've seen from you on the subject is semantic twaddle of the type one expects only from the basest of prevaricators. Your response to MaeCuff's example of beating a baby to death was, in essence, "It's all right in other places." Your response to da_Lizzie's example of the botched brake repair was that, given sufficient money and a slimy enough lawyer, a jury might find there was no wrong-doing. Rather than address the issue of the hypothetical product that does not work, you throw up a smoke-screen decrying the lack of definition for "work" and squawk about "ambiguous" specifications. A light bulb that emits no light does not work. Automobile brakes that do not stop the vehicle do not work. Wrapping those situation in rhetoric regarding definitions and specifications solves nothing and is (IMHO) largely responsible for the insane, chaotic legal system that plagues our country. Ethical, responsible professionals take the responsibility for their mistakes. It doesn't matter whether they're in management, on the assembly line, in sales or in the secretarial pool. They don't try to spin the situation to implicate people who weren't directly involved in the error. Mistakes present an opportunity to learn, grow and move on. Honestly admitting that you made an error can improve your credibility in the workplace and may actually increase your stature as a professional. Mistakes can also be a valuable tool in improving processes, procedures and workflow. There should be no shame in admitting an honest mistake. The writing is on the wall, Les. It says, "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin." Now, to use an old buzz-word from UseNet - *plonk*

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

"You know, Scummy the other very obvious issue here, is the fact that we're debating at all. If I claim that people can be and often are wrong, and he claims that no one is ever wrong, well...then ONE of us has to be wrong, right? And if that IS right, then I win the debate." Neither of us is wrong .. it's all a matter of opinion. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

"because you say 'No!' that makes it true?? This is like debating with a two year old.." Yes, I am coming down to a level that I feel this argument deserves. I still don't see anything new that has been posted since I last stated that this discussion is going nowhere. Les.

maecuff
maecuff

the other very obvious issue here, is the fact that we're debating at all. If I claim that people can be and often are wrong, and he claims that no one is ever wrong, well...then ONE of us has to be wrong, right? And if that IS right, then I win the debate. :)

maecuff
maecuff

You just have an unrealistic view of me. Of course I am wrong from time to time. All humans are, right? Just because I can be, well, cranky every now and then doesn't mean I'm always right. And I'm nice. :)

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

" wrong, I say I'm wrong " ???? :0 You have actually been wrong before and nobody was made to see it right??? :0 I truly am shocked!!!

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

I think I tried communicating once with this one, but s/he's too 'out there' to actually converse with. But in all honesty, I didnt read anything but your post here, so I cannot say for certain who is wrong or right ..

maecuff
maecuff

because you say 'No!' that makes it true?? This is like debating with a two year old..

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

"You posted, and I quote 'when a screwup happens'. Isn't that just another way of saying that someone made a mistake?" See subject line. Les.

maecuff
maecuff

You posted, and I quote 'when a screwup happens'. Isn't that just another way of saying that someone made a mistake? And if someone made a mistake, then something or someone was wrong. I'm all for personal responsibility and I don't point fingers. I never said once that I did. I am, on occasion, wrong about something. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong and I do what I can to fix the problem. This isn't about that. This is in response to your ridiculous idea that no one is ever wrong.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. is exactly the same as the one I just posted. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. without repeating myself. You repeat several statements, but I see no supporting arguments behind those statements. This thread has gone way beyond my original argument - which was to recommend that you don't point fingers at people in the workplace. When a screwup happens everybody takes some responsibility. HR for hiring the persons. Management for placing them in a position where they could screw up. The team lead for not keeping a close enough eye on what was going on. Colleagues for not giving enough support. We are ALL to blame to some extent. Don't point fingers unless you are 100% sure you had zero involvement, in which case why are you pointing fingers anyway? Les.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

other than, what you've just typed is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever read. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this thread is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you screw up some data, but fix it, you've still lost the company money and wasted time. Beating someone to death is a BAD thing because not only is it uncivilized, but counter productive. Or if you look at it from a purely accounting perspective a complete waste of energy and time when one bullet would have done the same in FAR less time. As for cannibalism being wrong, I'm just not sure where to start. Let's just say that cannibalism is wrong, morally, because it causes problems physically. Not only can you spread disease through cannibalism, but you can only have the equivalent of Mad Cow. Generally, not a good time. All your examples are pretty poor and make not sense. There is a reason we have a moral structure (civilization wouldn't work otherwise) and still believe in certain taboos (eg cannibalism or incest).

maecuff
maecuff

I read quite a bit and I DO get out often. I even read SciFi and Fantasy, however, I understand the difference between reality and FICTION. Yes, beating someone until they are dead is WRONG. Why do we have prisons? If no one is ever wrong, then there would be no reason to incarcerate anyone. Really, there's a valid reason to beat a child until they are brain dead? That's not wrong?? It's not a difference of opinion and it extends waaaaay beyond my circle of friends. There is right and wrong. I understand that there are gray areas, but that doesn't negate the fact that sometimes, people are wrong. Crucifiction was the right thing to do at one time? Perhaps it WAS done, but that doesn't make it right. Of course, if he were still alive, I'm sure Vlad the Impaler would agree with you.

four-eyes_z
four-eyes_z

So I asked myself why should I do that? Unless I simply misunderstood you and you were actually asking me to justify the statement "at the bottom" of your post. :) Anyway, to clarify and justify my own statement, I said you would "probably" be a pessimist if you agreed there was no black or white / no right or wrong in the world and ONLY different shades of gray. First and foremost, I spoke as a parent. I want to teach my children that there is indeed good and bad / right and wrong in the world. Otherwise, how can I teach them what they should and shouldn't do? If there's ONLY shades of gray in this world, how can I tell them "Drug abuse is bad" or "Stealing is bad"? Would you consider me a responsible parent if I told my children "you can do absolutely whatever you want because there is no right or wrong in this world"? In case you were implying that i'm the pessimist, I actually think of myself as an optimist because I believe that there is so much more we can do as a species. However, I believe our actions should be guided by our morals. And if you have any morals at all, you therefore subscribe to the notion that there exists right and wrong.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. the statement below. There is no Black and no white in my world, but no-one who knows me would class me as a pessimist. In fact I would think exactly the opposite is true, in order to believe that everything is one extreme or another is a very pessimistic way to live. I live with my eyes open to an infinite number of variations of black and white .. that's why I'm so optimistic. Les. "If you're a pessimist, you'd probably agree that the world isn't black or white but just different shades of gray (now THAT is a very sad way to view the world IMHO. Everything is morally ambiguous)."

four-eyes_z
four-eyes_z

and the notion of alternate universes... Honestly, I don't like to the idea of going through life knowing that there is no "good" or "bad", no "right" or "wrong"... If you're a pessimist, you'd probably agree that the world isn't black or white but just different shades of gray (now THAT is a very sad way to view the world IMHO. Everything is morally ambiguous). I've even heard some people say that any action or result thereof cannot be deemed good or bad simply because there is supposedly no good or bad and that they can be done for different reasons. However, following that logic, that would mean we are living in a meaningless and pointless world since whatever we do, it is neither good nor bad (what's the use?)... I wouldn't want to live in that kind of world. Would you?

Absolutely
Absolutely

lmunday: [i].. it's important, so that I don't get thrown out of restaurants when I use the bathroom. Les.[/i] Tony Hopkinson: [i]Let's see he how he gets out of this one[/i]. Absolutely: Pass me the popcorn, Tony.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

"Leslie" is usually a girls' name. Not always. Oops -- maybe. Who cares? ------------------------- .. it's important, so that I don't get thrown out of restaurants when I use the bathroom. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

But, since those were her exact words, where is the error? ----------- .. about someone's gender without having even seen a picture of them. Oh dear, now you ARE in trouble. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. I suppose that could be absolute. Nothing would be absolute, if taken to mean the complete absence of matter. Let me put it another way - "Nothing you or I have experienced has been absolute." Absolute is a theoretical concept. Ok, argue that one. (I'm only paying for the 5 minute argument.) Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not often I make that mistake, the reverse, well the less said about that the better. :p

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]Absolute nothing Surely no one will argue that Nothing isn't absolute, including Les.[/i] No, Les' exact words were "Nothing [b]is[/b] Absolute." [i]Now it sure would be apropos for Les to own up to the error, since that is what the article was about. Now since nothing means absolutely not anything, what could be more correct than to say that "nothing is absolute?"[/i] But, since those [b]were[/b] her exact words, where is the error? Maybe I should own up to the error. Yeah, why not? It's unlikely I'll be fired for it!! [i]One other poster nailed it when they said the construction is equivocal.[/i] Please, no more jokes about the building trades!

kandyass
kandyass

Surely no one will argue that Nothing isn't absolute, including Les. Now it sure would be apropos for Les to own up to the error, since that is what the article was about. Now since nothing means absolutely not anything, what could be more correct than to say that "nothing is absolute?" One other poster nailed it when they said the construction is equivocal.

Absolutely
Absolutely

TSO: [i]Honestly, I don't think that the world can handle you reading another sci-fi book. How bout dianetics, that is a book that you would likely enjoy immensely.[/i] That is sci-fi, just not any good, from what I've read about it.

Absolutely
Absolutely

Read them in the order they were written, starting with [i]The Early Ayn Rand[/i]. ISBN 0-451-21465-X I don't think the 'X' is needed. The 10 digit code is 71162 00899, in case you want to search online or something.

Absolutely
Absolutely

Hmm, I seem to be learning English, eh? Personally, I don't think Les considers my witty retort very interesting, and will just ignore this.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

the world can handle you reading another sci-fi book. How bout dianetics, that is a book that you would likely enjoy immensely. And afterwards, you can join the cult.. er.. I mean clan, no, no thats not it, oh yeah, religion that follows it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Let's see he how he get's out of this one Hmmm I've thought of a way, it's crap though, embarassingly crap.

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]Nothing is absolute.[/i] Are you certain of that? Are you [u]absolutely[/u] certain?

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]After all this time The construction is equivocal. It works both ways. Seems you have learned nothing, and not.[/i] Things are not always as they seem.

santeewelding
santeewelding

The construction is equivocal. It works both ways. Seems you have learned nothing, and not.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

What Ayn Rand book should I start with? Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

No idea what you are trying to say.

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]Nothing is absolute. Les.[/i] Care to make that "almost nothing," Les? :^0

Absolutely
Absolutely

So good, it makes 'jmgarvin' forget the "couldn't"? [i]So you base all your insane posts off a Scifi book that wants to be like Ayn Rand, but just quite pull it off?[/i] Lez 'lmunday' just sold one more copy for Mr./Ms. Moorcock.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

So you base all your insane posts off a Scifi book that wants to be like Ayn Rand, but just quite pull it off?

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]Hmmm. If I believe my taxes to be only $5 then that is all I need to send the IRS and they cannot come after me, right?[/i] Tell that to Mr. Smith.

Absolutely
Absolutely

Try not eating nor drinking anything for one week. You will have discovered an Absolute before you get halfway.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

a Science FICTION book series rather than reality itself. You need help.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

do you mean that Absolutely is not Absolutely? my monitor IS NOT a monitor? Me thinks you be smoking some strong stuff again. It has permanently tweaked you, now you belong in a hospital bed, constantly medicated of course...

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

if what I beleive IS reality, then why would I need to relocate? In fear of??? So your post just invalidated your own rantings previously...

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Go read the 'Dancers at the end of time' series, by Moorcock. Nothing is absolute. Les.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

there are indeed absolutes in life. Everything which is conceived will absolutely die. An oak tree is never anything but an oak tree and does not give rise to daisies or tulip trees. Food and water are absolutely necessary for human life. Reality is grounded in absolutes. Perceptions of reality on the other hand are quite relative due to their subjective nature.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Believe your taxes are $5 for the year and send them $5. Use the rest of the money to relocate to another country. Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've tried really hard to modify my environment and my missus still doesn't look like Jennifer Ellison. Not even after several beers and a box of magic mushrooms. :p

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

those drugs you are on. That way I can make sense of other items. Hmmm. If I beleive my taxes to be only $5 then that is all I need to send the IRS and they cannot come after me, right?

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. yes absolutely. 2+2=11 .. yes it does, see if you can work it out for yourself. I can find a way to make 2+2=!%&* if I want. The answer to 2+2 was invented by humans. Because someone tells you 2+2=4 and only 4 does make it right. Think laterally, use your imagination and almost anything can become true. Ever see The Matrix? How do you know the movie isn't based on fact? Les.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

So, that's right? Because I want it to be right? Beyond bizarre, honestly...

four-eyes_z
four-eyes_z

I guess that's when you finally reached the point in your career when you can finally work in government... :)