No one on this Earth is mistake free. But if you're unlucky, an individual will dig in their heels and insist they're right even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. It's a maddening situation anywhere. But in business it can be disastrous. It creates conflict that hinders productivity or affects your ability to move forward with or give proper information to appropriate individuals.

According to psychologist, speaker and author Guy Winch, most people who consistently refuse to admit they're wrong do so because they have incredibly fragile egos. They clam up and insist they're right, demonstrating what experts term "psychological rigidity", as a defense mechanism. Their subconscious feeling is that, if they dig in their heels, they can protect themselves from the consequences that might come from their imperfection and fallibility (e.g., being seen as weak, loss or retaliation). Winch also notes that some people go to extraordinary lengths in this process, even changing facts and convincing themselves of new realities in their own minds to escape culpability.

In this instance, if you want the person to admit they're wrong, your biggest job is to build them up. You have to convince them that infallibility isn't a sentence to isolation or something even worse.

  • Point out as many successes as you can in practical, casual ways.
  • Give them more opportunities to gain small wins they can feel good about.
  • Offer compliments.
  • Provide examples of when you were wrong yourself. Describe how you grew and the positive outcome that came from it.
  • Be a friend. Listen, offer information, forgive and have integrity in your speech and behavior so that the wrongdoer learns they can trust you.

But there's another element that can come into play, too. Admitting you are wrong means that you are opening yourself to learning and changing yourself. In most cases, this is a great thing! But it is also work. It can be difficult to do all the introspective study it takes to grow, and some people would rather hunker down in their comfort zones than put in this extra effort. Here, your job is to convince them that the change, while not easy, is doable and worth the exertion.

  • Ask them questions to get them thinking about what they believe and do. Paint a picture of better things that are possible.
  • Model your expectation.
  • Help them set small, achievable goals and provide rewards or positive feedback when they reach them.
  • Set them up with others who can support them or help.
  • Remove simple barriers to behavioral change, such as a lack of resources or an inflexible schedule.
  • Point out all the benefits of coming clean with real-life examples of others who have seen gains. Talk openly about their struggles to admit their mistakes and shift, as well as your own.

Whether the wrongdoer has an ego problem or a too-much-work problem, aim to provide or improve all Six Sources of Influence. These include

  • Personal motivation--internal drivers and desires; whether you want to do it (make the undesirable desirable),
  • Social motivation--whether others encourage you to do something (peer pressure),
  • Structural motivation--systemic setups that encourage you to prioritize one thing over another to reduce effort, gain reward or decrease risk (design rewards and demand accountability), 
  • Personal ability--whether you can do it based on skills or competence (surpass limits),
  • Social ability--improving skills or competence through the modeling, resources or teaching from others (find strength in numbers), and
  • Structural ability--systemic setups that make it logistically easier to complete a task or desirable behavior (a change in the environment).

If you can boost all six of these in kind ways (there are a number of key strategies for this), it will be much easier for the offending person to take the high road and admit they were wrong. Over time, they'll develop the new, good habit of always taking responsibility. And when they can do that, they're one critical step closer to the incredible leadership you want everyone on your team to have.

Published on: Nov 26, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.