Nobody is infallible: we all find ourselves in circumstances where we are wrong about something. This can take a number of forms: plain wrong on the facts; misunderstanding the context of a situation and proposing something that is not fit for purpose; the world changes out from under you, and what was once right is no longer. Of course everyone tries to minimize being in this situation — but what you do when you find yourself there says a lot about you as a leader and can have a huge impact on the team that you’re leading.
Building and sustaining a team of engineers1 takes a delicate balance of fostering a space for creativity, problem solving, and ownership of the products we deliver, while providing a direction and ability to change directions as needed to meet changing requirements, business needs, or world changes and most importantly course correct when things are going off.
What happens when you’re wrong
As alluded to above, there are numerous ways that you can find yourself in a situation where you’re wrong about something. First, and foremost, this is entirely natural. Though many try to avoid this at all cost, that is simply not possible. But that is entirely ok! Being comfortable with this allows you to learn from these situations (which is one of it not the most important thing you can do here!).
But as a leader, you have a whole other set of concerns + responsibilities when you find yourself in this situation: how you handle this with your team greatly impacts them + your relationship with them + their ability to succeed as a group. Handle this well and you’ll have a team with high levels of trust and thus productivity — handle this poorly and people will always be looking for ways to prove they are right at the expense of the important work we all have in front of us.
What you do when you realize you are wrong changes dynamics
What you do when you realize you are wrong has an outsized impact on your team. Not only do your words and actions hold more space than other’s; you set the tone. If you cover up and act like you were actually right the whole time you encourage others to learn and do the same. Worse still, this will make it harder to get insight into what is going on (and going wrong) on your team, since people will be covering up like they’ve learned.
But even worse than that, you begin to undermine your own credibility with your team. Not everyone will think this way, but some will see what’s going on for what it is and adjust their opinions of you. They will be less likely to bring you candid feedback or new information (“well, they’re just going to spin it to make it sound like they new this all the time, why bother.” or “Eh, this’ll just make them keep pushing on this (doomed) approach anyway”), less likely to engage, and truthfully think of you less as a leader. All of this leads to lower trust, lower levels of safety, and ultimately less and worse outcomes for the whole team.
Now we know what could go wrong, how do we stop it?
Don’t double down
This one should be obvious and easy — but I’ve found it can be one of the hardest patterns to escape: do not double down. Doubling down only serves to escalate the situation. I truly have never seen a situation improve by someone doubling down in this way — especially a leader.
Doubling down comes in a number of flavors:
- The repeat - this one is hard, because sometimes the person you’re communicating with really didn’t see or hear what you said. My rule for this is: when I get push back on something, I check myself to make sure I’m not off and then will do a “I think we may be talking past each other; let me try to rephrase and see if that helps…” type of correction once. If that doesn’t work, I try something else (disagree + commit; try a different method of communication, etc.) But finding yourself in a circumstance when you’re saying the same thing over and over is a sign that something is up (it might not be that I’m wrong — but something has failed!), identifying that and proactively addressing it will do wonders.
- Forcing someone to see that they are wrong — This is a particularly toxic pattern to find yourself in: you feel like you need to assert authority and this is the hill that you will die on. This is especially bad in combination with others like shifting the story. This might work in the short term, but entirely undermines your credibility.
This can even go to the extreme where someone constructs failure for their teammates. I’ve seen this extreme happen most around process + gate keeping: things like someone responding with “well if they don’t like this process they aren’t actually engineers” when someone on the team has concerns or proposals for editing a process.
- Shifting the story — This is super common and also the most insidious, when presented with facts that don’t conform to what you’re saying, you shift the topic to something that does fit what you’re saying. Or talk about generalities when what’s at stake is a specific instance. One common example here is going to an extreme edge case after making a broader general statement2.
- Explaining away — This can take many forms, things like “Oh well typically this is true, but yeah sure in this circumstance…”, or in the extreme shifting the discussion below. Another flavor of this comes in the form of language policing “Oh you’re using this word wrong, that’s why I was saying…” (try: “Oh, I get it now — I was confused because this word means … to me” the same message, but so much more open!).
The desire to do this usually comes from a good place (e.g. “I want to explain so that we can all learn”), but here is where framing and tone do a huge amount of work.
Openly, confidently admit you are wrong
Confidently and unequivocally admitting you’re wrong defuses the negative emotions that can come from conflict. Further, it opens the conversation up such that everyone can see different perspectives and how we got to this place. This is especially critical in circumstances where you need or want to communicate how you found yourself where you are. Without openly showing the vulnerability admitting you’re wrong, it just looks like an excuse.
Sometimes without explaining why we got where we did, people won’t be able to learn from the past. But if you don’t confidently and unequivocally admit mistake, this just comes across as a flavor of doubling down.
Setting this tone for your team isn’t just about fostering a pleasant environment. It establishes the norms of de-escalation and openness. We’ve all been through a code review where two people go back and forth in comments about if some thing is true or not; having a safe place where people don’t feel the pressure to prove that they are right defuses these proactively, so that everyone can get to the real, interesting work we care about and not arguing about something in the comments of a PR.
The power of “sorry”
This is an extension of the section above, but worth being called out separately. On top of openly and unequivocally admitting when you messed something up, apologizing for it goes even further in building space of trust and confidence. This is especially important if there has been a protracted conversation or something that’s been particularly heated. Having someone in a position of authority show this hugely changes the dynamic from one where folks are posturing and trying to prove something to one where a productive conversation can move forward.
It is something that must be deployed genuinely, but especially in high conflict situations will do wonders to bring the temperature down, show humility, and build trust throughout the team. On top of being genuine, this is also something you can’t do and then effectively take it back later. In other words: you can’t apologize now and then come back later and say “oh see, I was right all along” or worse sharing with others that you think you’re really right in this situation. This will ultimately undermine your credibility and undo any good you’re do with this.
This isn’t just for (people) leaders
Leaders are in a unique position for setting the tone on topics like this, but in many organizations people at all levels and in different roles set the tone of a team. A junior engineer seeing a senior or staff engineer openly and unequivocally admitting fault shows that that is how the team works + that is the behavior to emulate. As with most things, the more senior you are the more outsized the positive and negative impacts of you handling being wrong are. Not everyone will get this right all the time (I certainly don’t!), but approaching situations with an eye towards this will create an environment for teams to thrive and concentrate on doing good work rather than wasting time proving just how right they were.
Many thanks to Erika + Steph for their feedback on drafts of this post.
This post is written focused on software engineering teams because that is what I have the most experience with. Many (if not all!) of this is still broadly applicable to other teams (data scientists, analysts, etc). ↩︎
My absolute favorite example of this that I experience was getting into a long prolonged
debatediscussion with someone senior to me about
NULLhandling in our application — they brought up SQL + claimed it worked one way — but I knew it didn’t and I checked and sure enough that’s not how it workd. After a few messages it became clear that the person was wrong about their initial claims, and sure enough “Well, ok, but let’s not get caught up in the SQL semantics”. ↩︎