“Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”

I’ve had the above book setting on my shelves since it was first published in 2007. The title was a paraphrase of Henry Kissinger, responding to charges about his role in Vietnam, Cambodia and South America: “mistakes were quite possibly made by the administration in which I served.” Of course, more recently the line has been applied to Trump.


When clients and friends have asked about the failure of people to admit mistakes, I’ve often commented, “That’s reality. Get used to it.” That’s not just a flippant statement. It emphasizes the value of understanding the realities of interpersonal behaviors. Most people remain bothered or attempt to push back against these realities.  But, I’ve long since found that when you have a firm grasp on reality—how things actually work–you can go about your life and your work much easier, not wasting time and emotion on things that are inevitable. That doesn’t imply there are no exceptions to a reality or that it can’t be changed, but it does mean that you need to take behavioral realities very seriously.

So here’s the reality about admitting mistakes: 98—99% of the time, we’re all going to refuse to admit mistakes. 

Cognitive dissonance and the failure to admit mistakes
Although there is recent research on the widespread failure to admit mistakes, the easiest way to understand our problem and Kissinger’s is through the older work of Leon Festinger on cognitive dissonance. To summarize, nearly all of us prefer a world that is orderly, planful, and predictable. And so cognitive dissonance, the engine that drives self-justification of our actions and decisions—especially the wrong ones—is that unpleasant feeling when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.

Dissonance is frustrating because holding ambiguities and conflicting ideas, norms or values is tough, very tough, for all of us. The pain, for example, of deciding to buy a Ford or Chevy truck makes us decide as quickly as possible, lest our gut churn too much. Although the expression, cognitive dissonance, has been thrown around a lot, few fully understand its meaning. Prior to Festinger, psychologists believed that actions are governed by reward and punishment. If, for example, you feed a rat at the end of a maze, he will learn the maze faster than if you don’t feed him. Or, if you feed a toddler a cookie to stop him from having a tantrum, he will have another tantrum when he wants a cookie. But humans think. And so dissonance theory teaches that our behavior transcends the effects of rewards and punishments and often contradicts them.

For example, nearly 15 years ago when my wife asked me to help her select a new car, rather than compare an Audi, Pontiac and Saab and get involved in ambiguities and conflicts, I simply asked her to lay out seven or eight priorities and rank order them. Then I would see what I could find. She did precisely that and I learned that only one car in 2003 met all her priorities: the Audi A4. When she looked at the price tag and commented on the Audi’s cost, I reminded her that price was not on her list of priorities. She smiled and accepted the keys from the dealer. Humans, in contrast to animals have far more brain power, so not everything operates on a reward/punishment basis. Instead, like me and my wife, we justify our behaviors.

These justification skills are the key to cognitive dissonance facts. They explain why we usually refuse to admit our mistakes and failures. And I assume you’re like me: I can readily justify most any decision.

Political and business reality: the bad and the good.
I suspect the most glaring failure of the 20th century was that of Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, regarding his support of the Vietnam war under JFK and Lyndon Johnson. Huge numbers of people knew the war was a serious mistake. It was not until old age that he wrote in his memoirs, “I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors.” Though he never formally apologized, he said he was haunted by the blunders made under his watch. Intriguingly, his obituary declared him the “architect of a futile war.”

 One of the more intriguing failures to admit mistakes in recent news is that of James B. Comey, the FBI director, who, a week before his firing, refused to admit to his obvious mistake in publicizing the Clinton emails, before the Senate Judiciary meeting. “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision.”  How’s that for a self-justification and rejection of the obvious?

 In business, the failure to admit mistakes is just ordinary practice. My colleague notes that the refusal to admit mistakes are justified in three different ways: blamed on another person, blamed on the context, or blaming the unpredictability of the situation. Pay attention to yourself and others and you’ll spot them every week of work, especially in teams and across disciplines. They’re generic.

My mistake
Shortly after the election, I publicly affirmed very strongly that Trump would either resign or be impeached. In spite of my background in politics and narcissistic psychology, I failed to do a thorough-going analysis of the Trump access to the presidency. I ignored the obvious fact that once narcissists are in power, they are rarely dislodged from power. Trump has shown himself to be magnificently unimaginative, incoherent and insufficient. Furthermore, I failed to analyze the legislature’s ability to use, work around and ignore the president to achieve their own ends. I suspect these men made their peace with Trump’s unfitness long ago.  It should have been obvious that a narcissistic president is a superb distraction for the legislature to go its merry way. Thankfully, that legislature has also shown itself unable to govern. Though we are regularly reminded that Trump should not be our president, I was quite mistaken in my conclusion. His removal won’t possibly take place before 2020. The nation, however, is liable to pay for this mess for many years to come.

Furthermore, based on Festinger, it’s also obvious that those who voted for Trump will never admit their mistake, in spite of what their brains and hearts might tell them. They will continue to justify their original decision. That invalidates most opinion polls on Trump voters.

The plus side of admitting mistakes
If you’re a high achiever and then make a mistake, admitting error can be constructive and relation-building, even supportive of your career. As I’ve written in earlier posts, the action of admitting mistakes can build both connection and trust. In addition, I’ve concluded that vulnerability, such as admitting mistakes, is certainly nothing over which I need to get my shorts all tied in a knot. It’s merely an announcement of the need to learn something. Nothing more.

So yes, my mistakes over Trump also came with a great deal of added insight to the human—and organizational–condition.

By Dan Erwin, with contributions from Liam O’Dea.


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