Some Active Advice About Passive Mistakes

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As a fiduciary to your clients’ and their personal wealth, the last thing you want to do is reveal when (not if) you’ve made a mistake. News flash: Your clients already know that you are human. And humans make mistakes. Of course we want to avoid errors to begin with, but when they happen despite our best intentions, don’t compound them by going passive in communicating them. By “passive,” I’m referring to sentence structure:

“Mistakes were made.”

In case your high school English teacher failed to drill it into you, this is a passively constructed sentence. Instead of the subject performing the verb, the verb is performed on the subject. Why does that matter? With no “I,” “he/she” or “they” in sight, there’s no telling who owns the problem, intends to fix it, is sorry it happened and will ensure that it never happens again. The buck has NOT stopped here; it’s still roaming around planning its next attack.

It’s no wonder passive case is the universal language of bureaucratic mumble and dubious doublespeak. “Mistakes were made” is the kind of statement you’d expect to come from Bernie Madoff or your least favorite government representative.

Now, consider the active version of the same admission:

“I made a mistake.”

There, that’s better. Stated plainly, and preferably followed by a simple description of what you’re now going to do about it, you’ve cleared the air. If the error was egregious, there may still be some rough going and painful retribution as you clean up your mess. But at least you and everyone else can get on with it.

It’s how Warren Buffett would say it … and has, in fact. Searching on the word “mistake” in his 2014 Shareholders Letter, I found 11 instances in which he confessed to mistakes that he or others had made. In describing his own errors, nine of them were active declarations, like so:

“So why did I purchase NICO for Berkshire rather than for BPL? I’ve had 48 years to think about that question, and I’ve yet to come up with a good answer. I simply made a colossal mistake.”

He wisely switched to passive tense when discussing two instances of mistakes being made by others. Here, passive structure works, because it softens the accusation. It’s a gentler way to admonish others:

“A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted.”

Your take-home? If you’re going to go passive in your sentence structure, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Passive structure is for advising others about the error of their ways. Active is for ‘fessing up to your own human foibles.