Owning Our Mistakes - The Character Series, Part 4


So we did the wrong thing and trust has been lost. And there is only one way to rebuild that trust. This is how to right our wrongs properly and effectively.

In our interactions with others, it's inevitable that mistakes will happen. Perhaps mistakes happen while being fully aware that we are about to do something that is wrong. Other times mistakes are made unintentionally, but nonetheless yield negative consequences for others. In either case, we’re responsible!

When we've caused harm or wronged someone, regaining trust is almost always difficult. However, the act of righting wrongs is the only way forward.

Deep down, it’s our humility, empathy, and integrity that ultimately compel us to make restitution for consequences we are responsible for.

What we want to achieve through restitution is to rebuild trust! However, when trust is violated, it is almost always challenging to regain, especially if the offending party fails to take action to rectify the situation. Failure to right wrongs significantly reduces trust and undermines the confidence that individuals have in each other and their workplaces.

Full restitution must involve apologizing AND compensating those affected, or fixing any damage caused.

This is crucial for rebuilding trust as it demonstrates our commitment to doing what's right and that is our first step to restoring the trust that was lost.

Failure to right wrongs reduces trust by undermining the principle of accountability.

When individuals or organizations are holding themselves accountable for their actions, it sends a message that they understand that their behaviors or actions had consequences. On the flip side, when people or organizations are not holding themselves accountable for their actions, it sends the message that they CAN act with impunity, which will lead to a breakdown in trust and confidence

Embodying the values of humility and integrity is instrumental in the process of restoring trust and preserving relationships.

Admitting to one's mistakes and taking ownership of them show a level of humility that goes a long way in rebuilding trust. This gesture of transparency and vulnerability can elicit forgiveness, as it shows a sincere commitment to righting past wrongs.

Bummer! At this point I wanted to include an example of how businesses have been successful with restoring lost trust as a consequence of their mistakes. However, I was unsuccessful identifying a single story that was fully convincing to me.

  • Stepping down as a CEO is NOT restitution. 
  • Recalling dangerous products is NOT restitution.
  • Paying fines a company has been charged with is NOT restitution.

    All of the above examples lack true effort in making it up to the affected people in any meaningful way. Yet, that seems to be exactly where most business stop at their attempts to rebuild trust.

    (PS: I’d be more than glad if someone could point out a story where the wrongdoer went out of their way to truly make it up to the affected people.)

    I believe that in order to re-building trust with the people affected by our intentional or unintentional mistakes, one cannot truly do so without empathizing. Acts of restitution alone are not sufficient for regaining trust.

    When those affected do not sense sufficient empathy in the response - how can they be confident that the offender has learned any lesson at all?

    Expressing genuine empathy and remorse are most definitely important components of the trust-restoring process. By demonstrating a genuine concern for the feelings and experiences of those affected by past mistakes, one can show that they understand the gravity of the situation and are committed to making things right. An empathetic approach is required to help to repair relationships and foster a sense of forgiveness, as it highlights a willingness to prioritize the needs of others above one's own.

    Failing to show honest empathy for the ones we have negatively affected through our mistakes - whether that is intentional wrong-doing or an unintentional mistake with consequence for others - can prove devastating.

    Take the case of Kenneth Lay, former Enron CEO: In 2001, Enron, one of the largest energy companies in the world, was revealed to have engaged in widespread accounting fraud, resulting in the company's collapse and causing significant financial harm to investors, employees, and retirees. Lay was aware of the fraudulent activities, but failed to take action to prevent them and instead made false statements to the public about the company's financial health. He was later convicted of securities fraud and other charges, but made no public efforts to apologize or make restitution for the damage caused. I can’t be sure if the company was able to rebuild trust with the general public, but surely the CEO paid a price!

    All that being said, in conclusion, failure to right wrongs can have a profound and lasting impact on trust and confidence, both in personal and professional relationships, as well as in society as a whole.

    By undermining accountability and perpetuating a culture of wrongdoing, failure to right wrongs erodes the very foundation of our social, organizational and political systems, compromising our ability to work together and achieve our common goals. 

    As such, it is essential that individuals and organizations take proactive steps to address and rectify wrongs, and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to restoring trust and confidence. Only by doing so can we hope to build strong, healthy, and trustworthy relationships that are essential for the well-being of our communities and our world.

    To end, a few questions for self-reflection:

    1. What are the potential consequences of hiding my mistakes, both in the short-term and in the long-term?
    2. How can acknowledging and fixing my mistakes help me build trust with others? Or, what are the benefits of taking responsibility for my mistakes and learning from them?
    3. In what ways can hiding my mistakes harm my relationships with others?
    4. How does acknowledging and fixing my mistakes demonstrate my integrity and character?