Nobody likes being wrong. In fact, some people have so much trouble admitting they are wrong that they will perform acrobatic feats of rationalization to avoid accepting blame. Think for a moment about arguments you have had with your significant other. How often do the excuses start with, “Well, if you hadn’t…” and continue with a tenuous chain of cause and effect that ends with “…so it’s not my fault!”
Disciplined negotiators not only admit when they are wrong, they use mistakes as opportunities to build trust. Because people rarely admit their errors, when we deal with people who do, it is refreshing and puts them in a different light than run of the mill “blame dodgers.” Over a period of time, having a reputation for admitting mistakes can pay dividends when a problem arises that really isn’t your fault. The other party has every reason to believe you because you’ve shown your practice is to admit when it is your fault. They trust you.
A greater challenge is what to do when the other party refuses to admit that they have made a mistake. Trying to resolve a dispute, for example, becomes difficult if the other side won't acknowledge their contributions to the problem. (In one memorable exchange, Party A admitted they had made mistakes, but said it was still Party B’s fault because Party B failed to stop Party A from making mistakes!)
The reason why people don’t admit mistakes is very simple: they fear the consequences of being held accountable. Like a teenager claiming the dent in the car was “not my fault,” they don’t want to get “in trouble”. Those consequences might be institutional (they expose their business to liability) or personal (they or their colleagues will hurt their careers or reputations). In some cases, the fear may be purely egotistical: some people like to believe they are always right.
If you can eliminate their fear of the consequences you will start to change the other party’s behavior. Two ways of eliminating the fear are:
· Build affiliation by acknowledging your own mistakes or by sharing examples where other business partners made mistakes and how things worked out. Create an environment where everyone appreciates the issues are complex, fast-moving and mistakes will be made. Just don’t make the same mistakes twice! “Hey, we’re trying to launch a whole new business process here under tight timelines. We’re all doing our best but we know something will get messed up. The key is to learn from it, fix it, and move on.”
· When discussing what went wrong, also discuss the outcomes. If the other party can see over the horizon, they may be more willing to concede what happened. Demonstrate your intent is to help remedy the problem and to make them as successful as you in achieving the goal. “We know you are short of material for now. I can get some from another supplier and keep working on the product until you can get the rest of what we need from your factory. The cost for the delay will be minimal. What else can we do to help you?”
These same methods apply even to teenagers! Before asking “what happened”, let them know the consequences. Tell them the truth will produce one outcome, and not telling the truth produces a harsher outcome. Model the behavior you seek and slowly you will see change.