I am an "event learning" consultant and practitioner and have been since 1974.

When something goes "wrong" -- an injury, explosion, loss of revenue, etc. high hazard industries are required to learn from them.

Almost all events of these sorts can be traced to people who did something "wrong," IN RETROSPECT. That is, I'm NOT talking about intentional harm, or morally or ethically "wrong" here. I AM talking about, in retrospect, "I should not have flown my drone in those high wind conditions because it ended up crashing my drone."

I'm trying to use "retrospection" to get people to realize what they DID, and then get them to acknowledge that whatever they did was "wrong." "I flew my drone in high wind conditions, and in retrospect I acknowledge this was wrong."

There are parts of our behavior that are"wrong" in the sense that they will either harm us or other people -- even though we are not aware of them at the time.

But in using the word "wrong," I am getting a lot of push-back these days from people thinking "it's a finger pointing exercise." Far from that, we're asking individual people to look at themselves as part of an incident and SELF-ADMIT what they did that contributed to an incident.

I need to know the kinds of things I do that are "wrong," so that I can change those kinds of things.

So again, can anyone thing of a better word to use instead of:

Who did what WRONG? A word that does not imply morally or ethically "bad?"

Thank you

  • Regarding the clients who don’t like to call their actions wrong - how do they describe their actions?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 16:47
  • You might use "errant".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 18:22
  • Is it purely the normative association with wrong that you're trying avoid? Does incorrectly work better? Or are you looking for something different? Alternatively, if you're not looking for an adverb but a noun, you can use postmortem. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:31
  • 2
    Perhaps “What should have been done differently?”
    – LN6595
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 22:48
  • How about "mistaken"? Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 23:23

6 Answers 6


Who did what WRONG? A word that does not imply morally or ethically "bad?"

I would simply say that something was done incorrectly:

// an incorrect transcription
b : not true : WRONG
// incorrect answers

And shift the emphasis away from who and put it on what.

What was done incorrectly?

This doesn't imply intent, nor does it imply fault. Something can be done incorrectly without anybody being aware of what the correct method is. Perhaps they were never shown the instructions—or instructions were never written.

And if you ask it in a what form, it leaves it open for people to talk about the event, not about the person. (Anybody who claims they did it incorrectly would be taking responsibility themselves rather than feeling judged by somebody else.)

Unlike words such as error and mistake, where the implication can be that something was known but not followed and that somebody was to blame, incorrect is a purely objective statement. Although the dictionary definition associates it with wrong, it's not in the normative sense that is normally associated with it.

In corporate jargon, a common way of expressing this is not to say anything negative at all. Instead, people ask, "How can we improve things next time?" or "What opportunities for improvement can you identify?" The statement about the situation is reversed into something positive. I can see how it has some value, although I've personally felt it slightly disingenuous—a kind of politically correct way of avoiding the actual issue.

  • Jason, I think you might have nailed it. INCORRECTLY! Yes. And yes, I am absolutely trying to avoid being politically correct and acknowledge truth. Thanks
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:08
  • I would disagree with the "political correctness" angle. In companies where I've worked it's simply not considered a very effective way of solving issues. In a good communicative team, people who who is responsible for what, so what good does appointing blame do? If people aren't being cooperative that's a matter for management but otherwise I see absolutely nothing useful attributing mistakes to individuals as opposed to simply the actions themselves. (eg, "John flew the drone too high" vs "the drone should not have been flown so high")
    – user269635
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 15:40

In engineering, we often talk about the "cause" of a failure. We might talk about the "root cause" or several "contributing causes" for an incident or a failure of some kind.

For example, in the drone example, we might say that flying the drone in high winds was the root cause of the drone crashing. (And the next step would be to implement a "corrective action" such as always checking the wind speed before flying and not flying the drone when the wind speed is above some specified value)

  • Yes, Photon. I am an engineer and understand what you are saying. I have been where you are, but have gone much deeper. If I'm the one that flew the drone in high winds, and I don't intentionally dwell on that fact, even dig a little deeper about myself, then "the way I am" will continue to cause problems in the future. But until I "see myself" as part of the problem, by admitting "wrongness," I'll never be able or even be inclined to dig deeper into myself. So getting people to see their "wrongness" is, in my opinion, vital for making our highly hazardous businesses more safe.
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:18
  • 2
    That's the point of the corrective action. But if you really want to force them to admit their own faults, you'll just have to accept that many of them won't like it. Nothing upsets people more than criticism that they themselves know is valid.
    – The Photon
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:22

I gather from your question that you are seeking for others to learn from their previous experiences, utilizing reflection methods that put situations in retrospect.

The best way to express this notion would be to put an emphasis on the lesson learnt rather than what went wrong. Recognizing the wrongdoing becomes implicit when the process and emphasis is put on growth and the lesson learnt.

It seems as though your method and process is correct, but the means of communication, packing your message in a more positive and constructive manner, (instead of just trying to find a nicer word than wrong) may be a more successful path in this situation.

"You cannot travel back in time to fix your mistakes, but you can learn from them and forgive yourself for not knowing better" - Leon Brown

  • Jessica, thank you. I understand what you are saying. I've heard it many times before. BUT substantive personal change does not occur painlessly. Everything that goes "wrong" in a system created by humans can be traced back to humans. In my circles, however, there are huge attempts to "blame" all our problems on something besides "ourselves." People need to know where their behavior was "wrong." In my world, with the people I deal with, wrongness is usually taken as "bad, laughty, punishable, culpable, etc." I'm looking for another word without those associations.
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:27

There's a number of ways to say something like this (conjugate the verb for the appropriate personal pronoun and inflect the verb for the appropriate tense/mood):

I made a/the [noun]. (error, mistake)
I [verb]. (messed up, erred)
I was [adjective]. (wrong, mistaken, erroneous, guilty)
I was [phrase (prepositional) or idiom]. (at fault, to blame)
(most likely more)

You talk about "SELF-ADMIT" and acknowledging. If for example, the building burns down, saying:

I admit I left the oven on.
I acknowledge I left the oven on.

If there is any responsibility for the fire named in either of these statements, in my opinion it's only obliquely. It doesn't necessarily say "The building burned down because of me; I'm sincerely sorry." I really have no idea what's happening in society that you feel the pressure to replace "wrong" with terms that don't even directly attribute fault. The argument that "wrong" is necessarily tied to morality isn't true. 2 plus 2 equals 5 is wrong. I see no morality in this fact. Another example might be a NASA rover programmer who gets an "algorithm" wrong and makes an entire mission fail. In this case I'd argue he/she has done something wrong. Even in this example the only way morality can come into it is (arguably) reckless negligence (acting without due care).

I'm NOT talking about intentional harm, or morally or ethically "wrong" here.

Yes, I think most people get the idea.

A thesaurus will give similar terms you may consider. If the problem is specifically that the word you use can be associated with morality or ethics, then just simply use a word that's less associated with morality and ethics. It may be no similar word is never used in this way, but it seems certain words are less associated with morality or ethics.

Comparison on an NGram.

Google search:
moral mistake - 8,900 results
moral fault - 48,200 results
moral error - 72,000 results

I don't know what more to say. Will saying "making a mistake" allay these people's concern? Does it essentially mean the same as "being wrong" or "doing something wrong"? I personally think "mistake/n" is a good term given the description of the pushback you've experienced. Everyone makes mistakes, and if someone says you shouldn't use it because it COULD involve moral or ethical considerations, then I give up.

  • 1
    Thank you Zebrafish. One of the definitions of "wrong" is: unjust, dishonest, or immoral. That's where the problem is coming from. However, I do like your word "mistake," So I suppose I could ask people, after an unfortunate event, "what mistakes did you make that contributed to this event?" I like it! THANKS.
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:32

Causal learning exercises? They sound more like debriefs that can decide your continued participation in the industry. You are asking them to play the blame game (on themselves), you're just forgetting to use subterfuge, just like mom used to : “What should have been done differently?”

"I should not have flown my drone in those high wind conditions because it ended up crashing my drone."

What would be different about a perfect world where this never happened?

"Drones should come with air speed indicators, because they are extremely susceptible to wind."

Read between the lines and you can put the blame squarely where it belongs, however it admits no wrongdoing. Surrender but don't give yourself away. In a perfect world, that's the best you can hope a company told their employees to tell you.

These people are in cover your ass mode, and you're asking them to pull their pants down. You have to ask leading questions like, are they too tight? Should we be importing them from Europe? Get the company to blame the employees and vice versa, and all secrets will be unintentionally laid bare. Your job is to then sort it all out.


Taking @Jason Bassford's suggestion to eliminate "who" a step further, one could use "wrong" in a similar and non-confrontational way, e.g.

"What went wrong?"
"How did things go wrong?"

If the OP still prefers a different term from "wrong", I'd suggest askew


She is not the only one wondering what the heck went askew at the brand. In 2014 sales at J.Crew declined, and the company’s CEO Mickey Drexler admitted it had been a “tough year.”.

Thus those who committed human errors, won't feel under the spotlight if they are asked

How did things go askew?
What went askew?

  • Mari-Lou -- the thing is that we WANT them to know what they did that led to the incident, without thinking they are "bad." What happens most of the time is that everyone looks at THE OTHER PERSON, pointing their fingers. And what they see "wrong" in the other person's behavior is truly wrong. But those who they are pointing at are also pointing. Everyone's pointing, no-one's looking at themselves. The intent here is to get people looking at themselves, without thinking that they are naughty, bad people.
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 14:47
  • @BobNelms I don't think "wrong" by itself carries such a heavy personal responsibility, "bad" or "failed" are worse IMO. By saying "Who did that incorrectly?" you're still back at square one. It's the pronoun "who" that probably makes people feel guilty about themselves. Change it to "what" (as Jason suggested) and the attention is drawn to the action and no longer to the person. Avoiding the blame game (whose fault was it?) is easier if everyone in the team is asked to focus on what is fixable and what can be improved, see also Jessica Tiberio's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 16:20
  • Mari-Lou -- thanks. This is difficult to talk about. People cause problems. All people. Everything that goes wrong (in a system created by people) is caused by people. But until "I" know that things "I" do that cause problems, I'll continue to cause them. I need to see my own role in things that go wrong, without other people pointing it out. When others point it out, it's the blame game. When I see it for myself, it's AHAAAAAA. Now I'm in a position to change the world around me, because the thing I can change is ME. Thus the need for people to ask "What did I do that is WRONG
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 13:59
  • @BobNelms If this is a one to one discussion, then admitting privately one's own mistakes is fine, but admitting in front a group will cause all sorts of problems. I suppose you can modify that question into "What did I do that was incorrect/a mistake"? but it doesn't sound very natural. A less judgmental question than "What did I do that is WRONG ?" would be "What SHOULD have been done?" or "What COULD I have done better?"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 15:04
  • I know how unrealistic my questions might sound, but that's because you don't know the whole story. When something goes wrong, we get the WHOLE group of people together that contributed to the problem, show them the evidence that had been gathered, and then ask EACH ONE OF THEM to answer "what did I do that contributed to this problem?" There might be 20 people that answer this question -- all of them in front of one another, at all levels of an organization. The point we make is the "it's people that cause problems," but NEVER only one. We're all part of the problem AND solution.
    – Bob Nelms
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:09

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