The Power Of Being Wrong
by Mike Mangino on November 29, 2018

When was the last time you said “You’re right, I’m wrong?” If you’re like most people, it’s probably been a while. For most of us, those words are hard to say, especially about things that really matter to us. As hard as it is, saying “I’m wrong” can be incredibly powerful.

The most recent episode of the Radiolab podcast features an interview with Gerald Davison, a professor of Psychology at USC. Dr. Davison was one of the pioneers of what was called aversion therapy. Aversion Therapy was used in a number of areas, but Dr. Davison publicized and promoted it for use with homosexual men as a method for, in his words, reducing their homosexual urges. As a young professor, his research was gaining prominence until a chance meeting at a conference.

Dr. Davison met a young doctoral student named Charles Silverstein while he was presenting at a conference. Silverstein came to Dr. Davison’s presentation and asked if he could hand out fliers for his own talk the next day. Dr. Davison was not planning on attending Silverstein’s talk, but after missing his train home, he decided to see what the young student had to say. Based upon that meeting, Dr. Davison came to the realization that his aversion therapy was not an ethical practice. Over several years, his thinking changed culminating in a speech he gave during his introduction as the president of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. In this speech, he publicly stated that he had been wrong and that he was completely changing the way he practiced.

Can you imagine doing that? Could you stand up in front of more than a thousand of your peers and admit that you were wrong? I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for him. At the same time, I imagine it became a source of power.

You’re probably wondering how admitting you’re wrong gives you power. Let’s consider an example. You’re having a technical discussion with a colleague about a technology decision. Maybe you’re deciding which job queueing framework to use. You both have opinions and are discussing the tradeoffs involved. In most cases, you’ll trade points back and forth, neither of you giving up much ground. In the end, you both leave holding the same beliefs you started with.

Now imagine how this discussion would go if the other person said, “You’re right, the queueing system you are recommending has much better recovery options in case of serious problems. The one I’m proposing is more likely to lose jobs. I wonder how often that would happen?” Suddenly, this conversation becomes a real discussion. I’ve found that once somebody admits that they are wrong, my mindset shifts more towards collaboration and I’m more willing to admit when I’m wrong.

Of course, it’s easy to admit that you’re wrong when the discussion is about something small like a technology discussion. It’s harder when the discussion is about something more important. Recently, I was in a meeting with our CEO and two other developers. The CEO and I were disagreeing about some of the decisions being made. After a few minutes of back and forth, I took a step back and looked at the data behind what we were discussing. While I could certainly have kept arguing, I realized that Matt was largely correct. That’s when I publicly admitted that I was wrong.

This may not seem like a way to gain power, but it is. By admitting being wrong, it adds weight to my other statements. I’m sure you’ve had a conversation with a person who never admits when they’re wrong. After a bit, you start to discount everything they say. On the other hand, when you talk to somebody who admits when they are incorrect, you can better trust their statements.

Of course, this added weight isn’t the only power of admitting when you’re wrong. I’ve worked with vendors in the past who would never admit to product bugs. Instead, they would ask for example after example only to come up with increasingly absurd explanations for a clear bug. I’ll let you in on a secret, I wasn’t fooled. I knew where the problem was and all their denial just made them look bad. When we have bugs at HubTran, we admit them. Our support ticket system is filled with apologies. Even with the bugs, our customers love us. They know that when they send in a problem, we will look at it honestly and fix the problem if it’s our fault. That gives them confidence in us as a company.

So the next time you’re having an discussion or an argument, stop for a second and think. If you’re wrong, try admitting it. You’ll be surprised at what it can do for you.