Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes it’s purely unintentional, like miscommunications, and other times, less so (relatively speaking), like errors of judgment. While they can be costly, though they’re often not in and of themselves the problem.
Rather, they’re symptomatic of deeper flaws that must be rectified, whether these are organisational or individual flaws. Given the right leadership, frame of mind, and attitude, mistakes can be turned into feedback and lessons for the future.
The problem, however, is that some people seem to believe they can never do any wrong. Instead of apologising and saying “I don’t know”, “I misjudged you”, or “I made the wrong decision”, they find some way of justifying themselves and proving that they weren’t wrong, even when all the evidence points to the contrary.
More often than not, it is highly detrimental to the team, the organisation, and even to themselves. But even though such behaviour is frequently chalked up to self-absorption, ego, and bull-headedness, these explanations are also often too simplistic. People often refuse to see that they were wrong for a whole host of psychological reasons. Here’s why.
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These are often people who cling on to self-images based on fixed-minded ideas. Because they view skill and ability as fixed over time, their priority is to protect what they have, not to grow. Hence, above all else, such people tend to be most concerned with self-inflation; they often strive to uphold a larger-than-life image of themselves as flawless and infallible people.
In their minds, the cost of making a mistake isn’t just material loss. It’s also a loss of social influence (in the form of credibility) and a huge blow to their self-image. To admit to a mistake is to lose face, and to prove to yourself that you’re unskilled, incompetent, and untalented.
In other words, the stronger the desire for the preservation of self-image, the less likely people are to admit they were wrong. Thus, when called to account, they tend to lean on finger-pointing and excuse-giving to avoid having to face the possibility of incompetence.
For such people, anything is better than making a dent in the facade of flawlessness; even if they’re outside their area of expertise, they stick to the pretence instead of readily admitting they don’t know enough to make a proper, informed decision.
If you think of yourself as knowledgeable and informed enough, you tend to overestimate your abilities. In this case, it’s not about compensating for a fragile self-image; it’s that your self-image is too strong.
You genuinely think that because of the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated, you really do believe that you weren’t wrong.
It’s a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which holds that when people reach an initial peak in their knowledge of a particular field, they tend to become victims of overconfidence. Beginners, especially, are far likelier to overestimate themselves after mastering the basics.
Paradoxically, a veteran who is far more knowledgeable has a better grasp of himself, his limitations, and of what he knows and doesn’t know; they tend to not to share the beginners’ overzealous tendencies. When you don’t know that you don’t know enough, overconfidence leads you to insist that you couldn’t have been wrong.