Enterprise Software

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?


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.

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