Why Leaders Should Embrace Being Wrong

Especially in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, no business leader wants to be seen as mistaken, or misguided, or just plain wrong. But running away from error is exactly the wrong response, says Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Instead, she says, “every instance of wrongness is an opportunity to learn and to see something in a new way.”

Human beings are never going to succeed in eliminating all error – it’s simply not possible, and Schulz believes it’s not even desirable. “I’d venture to guess that almost every innovation – everything we get excited about as a product or a process, from the iPad to penicillin – comes about through trial and error,” she says. “The error part is important. When a belief fails you in the moment, one of two things happens: either you have no idea what’s going on, and that’s very literally the driver of innovation and how science works, or your belief collapses and in that moment, you see a new one.”

In addition to fueling innovation, embracing error can also – paradoxically – help you prevent it. “The baseline position isn’t ‘We need to never make mistakes,’” says Schulz. Instead, you want to drill into the possibilities – if a mistake were to happen, when and where is it most likely to occur? “It’s important to think about systems, rather than individuals,” she says. “What allowed that person to make the error in that moment? Focus on creating great systems.  If you’re a boss or a manager, you need to create an environment where it’s not just acceptable but rewarded to tell you about mistakes, because that problem most likely isn’t a one-off, but is probably indicative of a flaw and a weakness in your company.”

So how do you foster a corporate climate that has a healthy relationship to being wrong? Schulz offers four pointers for executives.

  1. Appoint a devil’s advocate. Too much groupthink? No one willing to speak up with dissenting opinions? As a manager, you should “appoint someone you really trust whose job is to argue against you,” says Schulz. “If you’re so respected that no one in your inner circle is willing to say you’re wrong, you need to rethink your internal management structure.”
  2. Showcase your commitment to being open about mistakes. If you’re wrong, admit it – and if someone else in your company has made a mistake, don’t attack them for it. “I guarantee you any situation in which you have your wrongness shoved in your face will go very poorly,” says Schulz. “You’ll be disinclined to acknowledge your error, and the most common response is to become defensive and entrench.” Instead, make it clear that everyone is wrong sometimes, and it’s part of a shared responsibility to learn from errors together.
  3. Argue against yourself. Make it standard operating procedure – for yourself and your employees – to argue the opposite side of a case, even if you’re convinced you’re right. The research you conduct may help illuminate aspects you’ve been overlooking and encourage you to revise your opinion.
  4. Truly listen. When views are polarized, it can be hard for anyone to step back and see another side, much less admit they’re wrong. But listening can defuse that tension, says Schulz: “If you let people talk things through in an environment where they feel they won’t be attacked, a remarkable number will let down their guard.”

How does your company deal with being wrong? What are your strategies for preventing error – or learning from it when it occurs?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.