Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


“I WAS WRONG.” How often do you hear that phrase in your workplace? Probably rarely.

29 May, 2021

by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection

In these polarized times, admitting error is often seen as a sign of weakness. Many company cultures ascribe inordinate value to “being right.” Any correction is seen as a personal insult. We worry that if our mistakes were revealed, our reputation would be trashed. So, when challenged, we feel we must “double down.” Instead of humbly rethinking our conclusions in light of new information, we equivocate, interpret and concoct ways to justify them; and launch attacks on our “accuser.” But it’s worse than that. As Joseph Hallinan has noted, this defensive tendency gives rise to self-deception. We blind ourselves to our mistakes. We’re “all pretty sure we are way above average.”

Left unchallenged, this defensive mindset reinforces a corporate culture of blame-shifting, divisiveness, distrust, fear, shame, disloyalty and deception.

A company’s culture around “being wrong” really matters. Here’s a specific example. Suppose a customer expresses worry that there might be a defect in your product. This raises complex questions. The issue might arise from the way that customer uses the product. Testing may be off. Your prioritization of this question – and your internal communications and responses to this customer – will be shaped by your company culture around “being wrong.” Will you dodge the question? Will you disclose requested information? Will you dismiss this as an unwarranted “fishing expedition?”

Even if it turns out in the end that you were “right,” and there was no defect, your credibility will be strained if you seemed evasive. In some cases, even the appearance of a cover-up may lead to threats of litigation. When other customers hear of it, they may take their business elsewhere. Point is, you can be right … and “dead right.” And if you’re “wrong” and it turns out that the product presents serious risk to customers or users, the apparent cover-up might threaten your company’s very existence.

Step back and think how it feels to work for a company with a “no mistakes” culture. It’s stifling. Emotionally draining. Soul-sapping.

So, what can be done to reign in a toxic “no mistakes” culture? I submit that a concerted encouragement of grassroots discussion of employees’ faith and belief can help a lot.

Much has been written about the desirability of humility in the C-Suite. We read that when leaders invite contrary views, and recognize their error, and embrace change that they didn’t devise, “regular workers” feel validated and valued, and better decisions are made. Trust, authenticity and collegiality can then grow deep in the organization.

Far less has been written about how a “no mistakes” culture can be cured by encouraging people at the grassroots to speak openly about their core values and beliefs. My point is that humility in the C-Suite is helpful, but it’s not enough. I’ve blogged before about the profound influence that “regular workers” can have on corporate culture. A company’s culture is shaped through relationships up, down and across the reporting chain, person to person; not simply by executive pronouncements.

Challenges and questions that confront your employees regularly bring their character into sharp relief. In her book Being Wrong; Adventures in the Margins of Error, Kathryn Schulz says, “However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” In a related vein, Jasmine Wu, associate professor of management at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University has observed that, “[When] we’ve put honesty over our own self, it’s a very courageous action.” (See also Abby Perry’s incisive piece “The Quiet Art of Being Wrong” in Issue 5 of the print journal Common Good).

It’s people’s core values and beliefs – often their faith – that informs how they react to being wrong. Their values and beliefs spur them on to pursue truth above personal accolades. Whether we’re “religious” people or non-theists, open discussion of our core beliefs and those of our coworkers reminds us both of our fallibility, and of our calling to live and work in a manner consistent with the values we profess.

Over 39 years of corporate legal practice, I’ve witnessed the positive impact of such open discussion of core beliefs and values, among diverse employees. We in the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation hear of positive cultural transformation occurring at scores of companies through such openness. It’s part of the reason we launched this blog series on “Authenticity and Connection.”

“I was wrong” is a phrase that flows freely from courageous, trustworthy character. It teaches. It ennobles. It connects us with our core values and beliefs. Especially when employees feel free to openly discuss how “I was wrong” connects with their core values and beliefs, the culture is enriched. Indeed, the world is enriched.