On Doing Nothing

Decision making is an interesting activity. Ostensibly, we want leaders who step up and take action. We seek decisive leaders who step up and “get something done.”

The reality, however, is that we often find those who make the best decisions do nothing… at least initially. Obviously, there are emergency situations in which one must make immediate decisions. We want airplane pilots and surgeons, for example, to react to life-threatening and rapidly meeting situations quickly and decisively.

In many other situations leaders can benefit from letting situations play out for some time. When leaders wait, volatile situations may diffuse, new circumstances may arise, new resources may become available, or new information may arise. By doing nothing… at least at first… leaders may avoid making bad situations worse or they may make decisions with better information. Of course, they may be is a more dire situation later, but that is no assured.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had chances to make some decisions… real decisions about how to act in response to one of the quintessentially “difficult situations” that we all encounter at work… and also imaginary decisions about how to respond to events I was observing on the television.

In both of the situations, the decision was made to “do nothing.” Well not really… the decision was made to wait… see how things changed as the situation emerged, then begin to make decisions. In those cases I have in mind, doing nothing is probably the correct decision. Quick decisions made on an impulse are not the rationale ones we need when faced with important decisions… doin nothing if you have the advantage of time.

I’m also reminded of the strategy adopted by a principal for who I used to work. There was one problematic student. He had spent some time in the office and some teachers were getting upset he wasn’t doing anything about the student’s behavior. He had a meeting in a conference room adjacent to my computer room one afternoon with some teacher who were upset about his handling of the situation. He walked though my computer room on the way out. I looked at him and said, “Your waiting for Joey to move aren’t you?” He said, “Yes, doing nothing is sometimes best.” The next weekend Joey’s family moved.