The winning psychology of owning your mistakes and apologizing at work

It feels awful when we make a mistake at work, especially when it carries bad consequences – such as costing the company a ton of money, or somebody losing their job.

Some schools of thought suggest that you should never own up to a mistake, and always be the last to apologize. Lawyers, for example, might advise that if you’ve been in a traffic accident, you should keep your mouth shut lest you accidentally accept liability!

But in the workplace, learning how to effectively own your mistakes and say sorry is a crucial skill that can take you far.

Why admitting to mistakes and saying sorry is so difficult

Look, we’re not going to sugar-coat this… admitting to mistakes and saying sorry is difficult. Very difficult! And, according to Psychology Today, there are two main reasons why this is the case:

  1. It feels like we’re diminishing our very self. Admitting we did something wrong is like admitting that we’re flawed, and it can knock our self confidence.
  2. It feels like we’re losing power and control. Apologizing to another person puts the power of forgiveness into their hands, and can make us feel vulnerable.

But did you notice how we used the phrase “it feels like”? That’s because admitting to mistakes and saying sorry can actually have the opposite effect to what we expect. It can actually put us back in control, and lead to self-improvement – especially in the workplace.

Building trust through transparency

When we admit to a mistake, the first thing we are doing is saying “we have nothing to hide”. Or, in other words, we’re showing honesty and transparency. And when we have nothing to hide, people have less of a reason not to trust us!

Think about it. If you know that a person is prone to hiding their mistakes and never taking responsibility, then the next time you ask them why something might have happened, you’re not going to have much confidence in their answer, are you?

Take Sheila Marcelo, for example – the CEO and founder of When she fired her first employee, early on in her career, she quickly realized that she had made a mistake. But as tempting as it must have been for her to keep that mistake to herself, she decided to come clean – and admitted to her team that firing this employee was the wrong thing to do.

As a result, the company re-hired the employee. Sheila apologized to all who were affected… but instead of being angry at her for making the bad decision in the first place, her team actually learned that they could trust her more. After all, once people know that you’ll admit it when you’re wrong. They’ll take you more seriously when you stick by your guns.

Earning respect through accountability

When you start admitting to, and apologizing for, your mistakes at work, your colleagues and superiors will start to see you as a more accountable person. And that has the ability to increase the respect these people have for you.

Sure, some people may say that admitting to mistakes shows weakness – but those are not usually the kinds of people you want to earn the respect of.

When it comes to good, strong leaders, these people tend to have massive amounts of respect for employees who own up to mistakes, and that’s because good leaders understand that accountability is vital to their company’s success.

There are a few reasons for this:

  1. It bolsters company culture
  2. It improves individual employee performance
  3. It tends to result in better compliance (and therefore less risk)
  4. It has a direct correlation with stronger profits

We’ll be looking at some of these in more detail in the next couple of sections.

Owning our mistakes is the most effective form of growth

Admitting to mistakes – even just to ourselves – is a form of constructive self-criticism. By acknowledging what we’ve done wrong, we’re giving ourselves the chance to find out how to do it right. And that is one of the fastest and most effective ways to grow our skills and advance our careers.

But it’s not just self-help books that recognize this sort of thing. Some of the best business leaders in history have also acknowledged that making mistakes is one of the best ways for people to learn and grow.

One of our favourite stories, in fact, comes from a quote from Thomas J. Watson Sr. – the president of IBM during the early 1900’s.

“I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000,” he famously said. “No,” I replied. “I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

The fact is that if we never learn what doesn’t work, we’ll never learn what does. And if we never admit to ourselves that we are getting things wrong, we’ll pretty much go through the rest of our lives getting it wrong again and again and again.

So regardless of whether we want people to respect us or trust us at work, we should be acknowledging our mistakes regardless – as it truly is the key to personal growth.

Creating a ripple that lifts those around us

We mentioned that owning our mistakes and apologizing for them can improve company culture. And that’s because when we bravely lead by example, we are showing others around us that they shouldn’t be afraid to own up to their mistakes – and that can create a far happier, more dynamic company culture.

Would you rather work in an environment where every single person was constantly trying to shift the blame onto somebody else, or think of creative new ways to hide their mistakes? Or would you rather work in an environment where it didn’t matter who had made the mistake, what mattered was how it was managed going forward?

When you lead by example, that’s the kind of culture you create.

In fact, one leader on LinkedIn says that when you admit to a mistake, there are five things that tend to happen immediately after:

  1. People see that making mistakes can be embarrassing, but that it is part of the process
  2. People realize that if you can admit to a mistake, then so can they
  3. People increase their respect for you, and generally start to like you more
  4. People avoid repeating the same mistake you just made
  5. People realize that it’s easier to clean up the mistake earlier, rather than letting it fester

Not a single one of these results is negative. And that’s the kind of positive ripple effect you can create, by simply owning up to a mistake, apologizing to those who were affected – and then working to put it right.

Admitting to mistakes won’t always be peaches and cream

Look, we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of admitting to mistakes, and the psychology of saying sorry. But it’s probably important for you to know that just because it’s a good thing, doesn’t make it an easy thing. In fact, sometimes you may even find it gets a bit ugly.

And that’s because not EVERYBODY is going to respond well to you, when you admit to a mistake. In fact, sometimes you’ll get a mix of different responses, such as:

  1. Anger. This may sometimes come from those affected by your mistake.
  2. Jealousy. This may sometimes come from people who wish they were brave enough to admit to their own mistakes.
  3. Manipulation. This may come from people who see your honesty as a sign of weakness, and attempt to exploit it.

And let’s also not forget that admitting to your mistakes doesn’t give you a free pass to go out and behave recklessly! You should still keep a healthy degree of risk awareness, even with the new mindset that mistakes can be good to make from time to time.

Essential reading: The importance of self-management in the workplace

But if you can accept that it will sometimes feel difficult, then you’ll find that admitting to mistakes and apologizing at work generally gives you a whole new outlook on life, and empowers you to grow. So be brave, and the next time you are tempted to hide a mistake at work? Do the opposite. See what happens.

Good luck!