The Gentle Art of Eating Crow

Admitting you made a mistake is never easy, but if you gotta do it, do it with style. Here's how to emerge looking professional and fair

By Liz Ryan

You stride out of the conference room flush with triumph. Man, did you nail it! You made great points and knocked down objections like a pro bowler flattening tenpins. The team simply has to go with your recommendation -- it's only rational. The guys with the opposing view don't have a chance -- those dweebs didn't make a single compelling point.

You spend the day enveloped in the aura of success. But on your drive home, you ponder: What about Sarah's question -- does that bear more discussion? You felt so sure at the time that it didn't. You vacillate. James was going down an interesting track -- would having heard from him earlier have changed your perspective? You think some more. You wake up at 3 a.m. and realize: I was wrong.

Oh, no! How can you reverse your position when you've made such a strong stand? What do you do now? Do you hang tough and hope no one else gets the picture? Do you blame your misguided stance on bad information from the marketing research guys? This is a disaster.

It doesn't have to be. One of the best outcomes of the torment you're feeling now is that you'll have learned never to grandstand again. And believe it or not, you can come out of this looking professional -- and even open-minded and apolitical (that's the real you, right?). Here's how to do it.

Meet with the opposition at once. Business isn't mortal combat. But the person who feels the most strongly that you're mistaken is still an opponent of sorts, and you need to hightail it over to his or her office. "Nikhil," you'll say, "I thought all night about the points you made in the meeting, and I've reversed my position. I think you're headed in the right direction, and it took some time to sink in, but you sold me."

The next step is critical: Button your lip! Say nothing else until he responds. The way Nikhil looks at you will be in direct proportion to the degree of disdain you showed yesterday for his point of view. If you were mild in your remarks, he may shake his head in disbelief but accept your concession gracefully. If you were out for bear -- as in "Nikhil, do you have any experience in this area at all?" -- be ready for a less accommodating response. He may say, "You're a trip -- you shank me in the meeting in front of our team, and now you tell me I'm right -- in private?"

"I will tell them all," you reply. "But I wanted to tell you first."

Tell the others. If you don't have another meeting scheduled soon, compose an e-mail to the group that describes your revised position. The key point is that you listened carefully to the points that were made, even if, at the time, you promoted your agenda like a televangelist on a roll. And after considering more carefully, you changed your mind.

Again, expect the reaction of the team to be in proportion to the vigor with which you made your original argument.

Tell the chief. Besides your teammates and Nikhil, the other person who has to know about your sudden conversion is your boss. "What going on?" she'll ask. "You spent three weeks researching the issue, brought a presentation and supposedly a rock-solid argument to the senior staff meeting, didn't waver a bit in the face of intense questioning, and then decided overnight that you were mistaken?"

"Yes," you say. "Jane, I did put a lot of time into that research. And I came to the meeting sure that I had done a good job. But I can see now that I should have gotten more input from more people early on. I would have spared you and myself a lot of embarrassment if I had done that. So I've learned that lesson. But I couldn't stick to my guns just because they were my guns. At least give me credit for being able to admit when I made a mistake."

"Don't ever do it again," she'll admonish. And you won't. Putting yourself in reverse is an experience that sticks with you forever. What you learn is that if you maintain an inquisitive demeanor in interactions with your workmates, you'll never have to grovel when you change your mind. It's only when you trash others and insist that yours is the one true path that you end up looking foolish.

Apologize if you need to. The last step in a full reversal is being honest enough to see where you overstepped -- where you insulted other people or their work and need to apologize. Maybe it's the intern who could never really get the presumed genius of your plan. Maybe it's the marketing research manager or anyone else who got in your way. There's an opportunity in this, too: To improve your relationship with a person whose value you appreciate more today than you did yesterday.

"Angela, I wanted to apologize for my vehemence when you questioned my proposal," you can say. "That's O.K. Jerry, I just wish you hadn't called me a 'starry-eyed neophyte' at the same time," she may reply. "You're right," you can say. "I was wrong."

Life is like that, and work life, too. It's O.K. to be wrong now and then. You're even allowed to make a big mess of things -- as long as you clean up after yourself.

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT