Written By: Jon Utley
At the end of the day, admitting fault is better than avoiding trouble or critique.
When I was very young, my younger brother and I were fascinated by fireworks. One summer day we decided to take a couple sparklers left over from the 4th of July. We went to the street and proceeded to light them. It was fun watching the sparks fly–then my brother decided to throw the sparkler into a vacant field nearby. The tall weeds took to flame in seconds flat. I ran to our house and announced to my mom that the field was on fire, then quickly added, “I don’t know how it started.” Long story short, I was grounded for a month, and Mom and Dad decided not to allow me to finish my little league baseball season. That was painful, especially for a kid trying to become the star pitcher.
It’s very normal for children to resort to lying to avoid getting into trouble. In a 2018 study, researchers at McGill University in Montreal tested kids’ tendency to lie. Kids ranging from four to eight years old were placed in a room and instructed not to peek at a specific toy. The researchers then left the room and observed the kids’ behavior. Two thirds of the kids peeked at the toy. The kids were then divided into two groups–one group was told they would be punished if they had peeked, while the other was told they would not be punished. As you might guess, the children who were threatened with punishment were more likely to lie about having peeked. The fear of getting into trouble can be a strong motivator to lie.
Even as adults, too many people revert to that childhood defense of lying to avoid trouble. But the benefits of admitting fault can be much greater than simply escaping conflict. I recall many times that a friend, family member, coworker, or supervisor earned my trust by admitting fault. I gained a deeper appreciation and respect for them because of their transparency. Had they lied to cover up a mistake or bad move, I might never have found out about their dishonesty, and perhaps they would have avoided getting into trouble. But at the same time, they lost an opportunity to gain my respect and appreciation by being honest and transparent–not to mention their loss of self-respect. Self-respect is often underrated; even though you may have avoided conflict with others, deep down you know you were dishonest. At the end of the day, admitting fault is better than avoiding trouble or critique.
Let me tell you a story about a professional golfer named Brian Davis. In 2010, he found himself in contention at the Verizon Heritage Classic on the PGA Tour–a rare moment for him, as he was not even ranked in the top 100 at the time. On this particular Sunday, however, he made it all the way to a sudden death playoff with Jim Furyk. On the first playoff hole, Davis took an approach shot that bounced off the putting green and into some weeds. When he tried to punch the ball up onto the green, his club made contact with a stray weed during his backswing. What’s the big deal? Well, hitting anything around you during the backswing before making contact with the ball was a two-stroke penalty. But nobody else saw his club hit the weed: no one on television, no one in the gallery, and not his opponent. So what did Brian Davis do? He called the penalty on himself! “It was one of those things, I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye,” he said later. On a slow-motion video replay, the officials verified he had indeed made contact. Brian Davis had lost his first ever chance at winning a PGA Tour event. He could easily have kept this information to himself and potentially won the playoff. Instead, he told the truth. Yes, he lost ranking points and he lost money, but ultimately tens of thousands of people–maybe more–were impressed and influenced by the integrity shown that day on the course. Many of those people likely reflected on how they themselves could be more honest in their dealings at home, work, school, or in the community. Thirteen years later, the domino effect of Davis’ decision could still be playing a positive role in today’s society.
The fear of getting into trouble can be a strong motivator to lie ... but the benefits of admitting fault can be much greater than simply escaping conflict.
By admitting his error, Brian Davis demonstrated that he cared deeply about the game of golf–that the game itself was more important than winning. Ultimately, that’s what owning up to our mistakes indicates: that we care about our work and our colleagues enough to make ourselves vulnerable. And when we do, it shows other people that they can be vulnerable as well. The more we demonstrate humility to admit when we’re wrong, the more those around us feel safe to do the same.
So, consider owning up more often, consider saying “My bad,” or “That was my fault,” to your family, friends, coworkers, or even strangers. It’ll bring you greater happiness and self-respect–and you may even start a domino effect of your own.