Tuesday, December 18, 2007


It occurred to me that I never got around to finishing my review of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

I finished reading this last week and I really enjoyed it. The crux of this book was simply that we need to learn to recognize the self-justifications that we make to try to convince ourselves that the mistakes that we made were not actually mistakes. They go out of the way to not criticize the mistakes themselves. Alone and unjustified a mistake is easily corrected. However, once we start down the path of self justification we tend to make even more mistakes and they in turn create their own self justification.

A friend of mine told me that he actually cited the authors work on his PhD dissertation in economics. A lot of bad economic decisions are made simply because people feel the need to justify the decision once they have invested so much into them. We tend to justify our purchases and speak more favorably once we have committed to them. I know people that have a really hard time saying anything negative about a movie that they’ve just spent $10 and 2 hours watching. The investment in the movie causes them to justify their actions. (Incidentally, I don’t suffer from this particular form of self-justification. I can give you a long list of movies that I not only wish I could get my money back but, I’d like that two hours of my life back and I’d like to have the memory of the movie purged from my neurons. The Star Wars prequels lead this list.)

In the above case he was referring to a monetary or time investment. Sometimes the investment could be much more serious and respectively the self-justification is proportionally higher. High on this list is abusive marriages that stay together because of the kids. What about the current situation in Iraq? Here is a case where the US has spent close to a trillion dollars and cost the lives more American soldiers than the total number of people killed on September 11th. It’s very easy to recognize the self-justification machine at work in our Commander-in-Chief.

Towards the end of the book the authors describe a therapy session they conducted at a management retreat. The participants went around the circle and each was required to tell the biggest mistake that they had made. The only caveat was that they couldn’t say anything at all to justify the mistake. Any kind of face-saving remarks were completely forbidden. It was awkward at first but eventually everybody got the hang of it. After a while they were having so much fun that neighboring classes were coming in to join the fray. I tried this today on a smaller scale at work with a few friends. We had a very similar experience. Gone was the defensiveness and the justification. “This is what I did and wow it was a whopper!” We found that once you take ownership of the mistakes that everything else becomes easier. It’s easier to correct any damage. It’s easier to repair any trust that was lost. And it’s easier to stop the chain of self-justification that inevitable leads to even more mistakes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the suggestion on the mistakes book. I'm enjoying the read! I suppose you are the one that is there to pull on the reins when I'm in my self-justification mode or going through cognitive dissonance. Love ya!