Sleep On It

Sometimes, I find myself in a room with a dozen of my friends, and we’re fired up. We’ve just finished doing some of the messy stuff when I have to be the bad guy, or we’ve spent some time on metric and merit, and we think we’ve finally got it right. Whether we’re recommending someone get some serious discipline for doing something dumb or deciding who the top guy is in the organization for his annual evaluation, passion can run high. After an hour or two of yelling and such, we can really get on a roll, and that momentum can build up to some harsh recommendations that seem a bit ‘off with his head’ the next day.

For the positive stuff in our chicken or the egg discussion, choosing the best people in the organization probably sounds exactly the same to someone walking past the door. It’s still loud, and we’re just as passionate about getting those decisions right since the risks are the same. We can get momentum in the wrong direction or focus on the wrong things, even with good people at the table. What seemed like the best decision at the time can seem equally bad the next day.

When a handful of us are in the room, and we’re all like-minded, some bad decisions can accidentally happen when we’re getting the momentum that comes with issues we’re passionate about. The textbook definition of this situation is groupthink, and it sneaks up on us while we’re trying to make good decisions. Even when I do my best to create some diversity in the room, it’s still hard since everyone at the table is there because they’ve had similar successes and are educated to the same standards.

Another sneaky thing about all this is that it’s hard to tell when it’s happening. Here are a couple hints:

– When one person is doing all the talking, even if it’s me.

– When everyone in the room is talking about how much they all agree with each other, or me.

Again, these might be hints, or they could really mean that you’re getting it right. Sadly, the only way you’ll know if you got it right is when you leave the room and show that decision to the rest of the world. By then, you’ve already committed, congratulated each other, and communicated your decision up to the boss. It’s only when the boss is staring at a room of people who don’t think you got the decision right that you start to question yourselves. By then, it’s too late to get back the trust that might have just been lost.

So, how do we create a buffer between the decision and commitment to make sure we aren’t about to make a bad decision with the best of intentions? I like to sleep on it when I can.

The situation you’re working on isn’t an emergency.

Really, it isn’t.

If it were a real emergency involving life and limb, safety of equipment, or collapse of the whole house of cards, we wouldn’t be sitting around a table talking about it. Any sense of urgency that’s driving us to make the decision at the end of the day is usually a pressure cooker of our own design.

And, since it probably took days of preparation to get to the table we’re all at, is there any harm in taking a night, sleeping on it, and revisiting the decision again tomorrow after some of the passion has died down? Probably not. Trust me, there aren’t many bosses who wouldn’t be willing to wait until lunch the next day to stress-test the decision before he gets it.

So, after all the yelling and such that brought everyone at the table to one of the most important decisions of the year, we call it a day. People go home to their families and come back refreshed. The next morning, we revisit the decision without another whole discussion. Some of the more drastic responses might be softened a bit. More importantly, some of those who didn’t talk much the day before have had a chance to get their thoughts in order to express something that might not have fit in the room yesterday. This is where I’m often surprised by what I hear, and it’s always valuable. The decisions made the day before usually stand, and this layer of self-inspection before we commit allows us to make sure the process was as fair as possible.

I’m not saying we should wait a day for every decision. The emergencies need to be treated like emergencies, and the routine decisions need to be handled like they always are, but a few decisions a year might have the group so worked up that it’s good to take a step back, go home, and sleep on it.

– How many times have you found yourself a victim of groupthink?

– Have you ever recognized it while it was happening, or only afterwards when it was too late?

– Have you ever wished you could revisit a discussion the next day because a good point came to you overnight that should be considered?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.