Why it’s so hard to admit you made a mistake?

Dave Cooper, a Navy SEAL widely recognized for his ability to build high-performing SEAL teams says: “The most important words any leader can say are “I screwed that up.”

I learned this intuitive lesson at a young age from my parents. My dad was quick to laugh at himself and do a face palm when he tripped up  (“stupe, stupe, stupe”), which only engendered in me a sense of loyalty and safety. My mom, on the other hand, refused to allow even a hint that she had made a mistake and, in my childish quest for fairness, I created a lot of animosity trying to get her to admit she was wrong.

Now, however, I get it. There’s a very real biological reason for our aversion to being wrong, and it stems back to our cavemen days.  Back then, making one too many mistakes — you know, like telling the tribe “Hey, guys, I think there’s food over there,” and leading them into the camp of an enemy tribe instead — could lead directly to being thrown out of the tribe. Because back then, before the days of corner delis and Amazon Prime, exile from the tribe was a very real threat to physical survival.

So now, when we make a mistake, the primitive part of our brain still has the same “fight or flight” reaction, in essence, translating it instantly as “We are going to die!”

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? That “oh, sh*t” moment of realization, when your heart begins pounding, your stomach gets queasy and your mind starts popping out justifications.So what we need to do first is ease that very real sense of danger. (That’s where our rational brain comes in handy.)  Here are three strategies to make it feel less threatening:

*Leave your self identity out of it.* If your ego had its way, you would never make mistakes. You would never have to apologize or admit any hint of imperfection. (Maybe you know someone like this?) Tell yourself, “I am not my mistakes. I am not my behaviors or decisions.”

Once you separate the implications from how you see yourself — you can be someone who makes thoughtful decisions, for example, and still have made a bad call this time — you can start to think more clearly (less defensively) and come up with better solutions.

*Pinpoint the mistake.* After the Columbia space shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts, N. Wayne Hale Jr. said, “The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing the Columbia to crash.”

Okay, while it’s laudable that Hale is accepting full responsibility, this is a very all-or-nothing, melodramatic approach — really, he didn’t understand anything that he was told?!

Better to be precise in your admission (and stick to the facts — there’s no need to bring guilt into it): “I take responsibility for not cross-checking the figures.” “I made assumptions about market conditions that were incorrect.”

In this way, you show that you understand what your role in the outcome was and also put boundaries around your mistake, which will solidify trust in your ability to do it differently going forward.

*Get more info.* In today’s fast-moving world, most decisions are made with imperfect information. Undoubtedly, your team saw inflection points or, with your encouragement, could share useful insights. Ask them: “If we’re in this situation again, what do you think we could do differently next time?”

Then create a system around getting their input. Ask them, “Am I missing anything? Are there assumptions I should question?”

The more you can show your willingness to take responsibility, the more your team/leadership/colleagues/clients will respect you and have your back. And that’s the ultimate mistake insurance.