“When I give a job interview, I always ask after past mistakes. Several reasons for this. It’s genuinely informative about how they handle adversity, yes, and it shows if they can learn. But also, it shows if they can acknowledge that they’ve made mistakes. Having no stories of mistakes (or mistake stories that immediately blame other people) are yellow flags. Not red because I get that some folks are scared to “screw up” the interview out of inexperience, but it becomes a direction to investigate. But if It seems they can’t admit fault, I’m a fast thumbs down. Such a person, no matter how good, can never learn and will make things steadily worse for everyone around them.
Now, I should add, I love mistakes. And not just because of my VAST COLLECTION of them. A mistake can be IDENTIFIED and corrected or learned from. Clear problems are a GIFT. This is because in most situation, the opposite of clear problems is not no problems, it’s obscured problems. If there are no mistakes in anything beyond a certain size, the only reasonable conclusion is that the problems are hidden.
And it’s hidden problems that get you. Failure may sometimes come from too many known problems, but even then you can regroup and adapt. Disaster comes out of the unknown ones.
Which is why the folks who won’t acknowledge mistakes are so toxic. Not only do they hide and ignore problems, they normalize that behavior and encourage others to do the same. And if those problems harm others? Hoo boy.
So, yes, failing to acknowledge mistakes (to say nothing of outright wrongdoing) is pretty harmful. But, and I say this with sympathy, it’s EASIER. Admitting fault is scary as hell. It triggers all the “BEAR ATTACK!” Parts of our brain which scream at us to hide. Worse, since so many of us have our identity tied up in our capabilities (“you’re so smart!”), acknowledging mistakes can feel like we’re denying that label and therefor ourselves and everyone who we perceive as valuing us for that thing. Faced with the choice between right action and self-protection, it’s not shocking which way people jump.
This is why this skill needs practice. It is something which genuinely gets easier as you do it more, and one of the (many) virtues of transparency is that you quickly discover this is nowhere near as scary as it seemed (though it can still be scary). In a work context, it may feel counterproductive to draw attention to problems that might reflect on you or your team, but if that’s the PRACTICE, your team gets better because they’re FIXING those things (and that’s visible too). In a personal context, it helps you form more genuine connections with people as you speak to things that really matter and can spend less bandwidth on pushing them off to maintain a facade. The other alternative is to just get better at hiding problems and blaming others. I won’t pretend that’s not a path to success. There are enough toxic environments and spiky tribal groups that you can 100% find success that way. You just have to live with it.
Because, ultimately, you know what you did, even when no one else does.”
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