The importance of admitting mistakes

My new home town Erlangen is compact enough to make everything accessible by pedaling, so I’ve been looking for a cheap bicycle. Last Saturday there was a bicycle auction on the other side of the town, and I of course went there.

I arrived just as they were starting to auction and I had to stand in the back row. There were maybe a 100 – 150 people there and about as many bicycles up for auctioning. I stayed quiet for the first few auctions to get a feeling of the going rate. The range seemed to be about 15 – 90 euros.

Then up came a mountain bike that seemed to be in a pretty good condition (although I couldn’t quite see it clearly from the distance…). “80 € – 100 €”, I said to myself. The bids started surprisingly low, so I raised my hand and shouted:

Fifty million dollars!

Well, actually, I shouted “Fifty!”. The crowd said “Oooh!” and the auctioneer said “Going first, going second, sold!” and suddenly I was an owner of an old bike.

I found my way through the crowd to the bike and had my first good look at it. It was in a good shape, it was a mountain bike, and it was — a children’s bike. It would have been perfect for any 10-year old boy, but would look very, very comical under 190 cm (6’3″) man such as myself.

So I acted like this was exactly the kind of bike I wanted and that it was for my nephew. I left the auction 50 € poorer but one completely useless children’s bike richer.

My new bicycle

Riding my tiny bicycle back home, I felt like a clown. 50 € isn’t that much money really. However, I bought a bike that some kid could have used. And now I still don’t have a bike and I don’t know when if ever there’s a new auction of cheap bicycles.

I am not really ashamed of bidding too much for a bike that I didn’t need. Things like that happen. What I am ashamed of is that I didn’t correct the mistake when I had the chance. Right when I noticed that this bike was too small for me, I could’ve asked the auctioneer to re-auction the bike and paid the premium, so I would’ve lost only 15 € or so. Then I could’ve stayed and bid for a bike I really wanted. Instead I took the useless bike home, just to save face.

The best thing about making mistakes is that you can learn from them. So, what did I learn from this mistake?

  1. Admit it when you make a mistake, admit it as quickly as you can. As long as you pretend that you haven’t screwed up, you just keep making the problem bigger.
  2. You can avoid immediate pain by not admitting the mistake, but it will not make you feel better. Hidden shame is painful too.

People don’t admit their mistakes because they are afraid of losing their face. The significance of losing face is more important in some groups and in some situations. I, being a newcomer to Germany and barely speaking the language, am still a little intimidated by my surroundings. Unconsciously I feel I must hide my shortcomings, not showing how lost I am among all these weird things.

In business, and in software development especially, this is really important. If mistakes are not admitted, they are not contained. Projects fail, and companies go bankcrupt.

A company can make it easy or hard to admit mistakes. In Finland I was lucky to work in a company that made admitting mistakes really easy. A key practice to this was “management by excessive discussion”, i.e. encouragament for everyone to talk about issues until they got solved. But at the bottom of it, what really mattered was just honesty. When management is willing to talk honestly and set aside wishful thinking and ego-preservation, it is not difficult for you to be honest about your work either.

Think about your work. When you make a mistake, do you feel safe to admit it?

(The comic strip panel is from Dilbert published on 2006-09-02. Dilbert’s copyrights are owned by Scott Adams, Inc. and United Features Syndicate, Inc.)

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