Here’s a painful feeling you might be familiar with: something is going wrong, you think, “I can fix this,” and you proceed to double, triple, quintuple, and ultimately go all-in on despite its borderline hopelessness. Been there? Turns out there’s a name for it (because of course there is). They’re called, “escalation of commitment errors.”
Barry Straw told Adam Grant (WorkLife podcast, “How To Rethink A Bad Decision) that we find these errors whenever people are faced with a problem and given the option to add additional resources to solve it. Now, sometimes the additional resources work (yay!), but sometimes they don’t (boo!). It’s when the repeated attempts keep not working (well, hang on, maybe let me try this…) that we see the error manifest.
Optimistic people with available resources will often keep escalating their commitments as opposed to giving up. Sometimes it’s really hard to see quitting as the right strategy. That’s because we humans often make emotional decisions instead of rational ones. We emotionally want to get out of the hole, but it’s our irrational commitment to digging that’s keeping us down.
Straw lays out several defenses for avoiding escalation of commitment errors, including “anticipated regret.” To keep with the digging analogy, it includes forcing ourselves to ask if we’d possibly regret taking that next scoop. In cases where we can anticipate actual regret following our action, it’s usually best to just stop.
Beyond anticipating regret, we can also look for any upside that quitting might entail. Sure, we’re pulling the plug on a plan, but now we get a chance to completely reassess our direction. Find the silver lining. Breaking the cycle of bad decisions means we’ve opened the door to finding some better ones, even if it’s just the realization we stopped perpetuating the pain.
Our work is hard enough without escalating our commitments to an error. If we can stop ourselves and those we seek to serve from making these types of mistakes, we’re making the world a better place. Diagnose accordingly and please, stop digging and start climbing.