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Re-thinking a bias for action

The motto of the indecisive: Don’t just do something, stand there!

While indecisiveness is a problem, sometimes “standing there” really is the best course to take.

A bias for action

I frequently hear about the importance of taking action. Stop planning and thinking about what to do and do it! It’s the only way things get done. Take massive action!

Businesses often proclaim that they have “a bias for action.” When a decision comes down to doing something or doing nothing, the default mode is to act. For them, choosing to do nothing would require an override of that default.

I get it. There is value in pushing yourself to take action because it can move you out of the comfort of the alluring status quo.

But what is taken as “doing nothing” may actually be highly active. Observing, exploring, planning, and thinking take a lot of energy, which may explain why people don’t do it very often. However, if the movement is in the wrong direction or at the wrong time, it is not just ineffective but can actually cause damage to you and your organization.


Soccer goalies have a bias for action that is costly. A 2007 study of professional goalkeepers showed that on penalty kicks they jump to the left or right 94% of the time, staying in the center just 6%. However, the research shows that they would have at least twice as good a chance of stopping the kick if they chose inaction and stayed in the center.

So why don’t they? According to the goalkeepers, they anticipate feeling worse if they stayed put and missed than if they jumped and missed. Plus, the optics aren’t good for a goalie just standing there and getting scored on.

So regret avoidance is one of several reasons for the action bias. Another is the lizard brain’s penchant for acting quickly. In the wild, being slow to move can get you eaten. For us 21st century humans, however, we rarely need to act that fast. Waiting, planning, and thinking are often the more effective course.

Action feels good because it releases tension. It can also be the result of an emotional impulse. Why do marketers try to get you to “act now” or give you a discount if you “buy today?” Because if you take the time for careful consideration and allow the emotional edge of the moment to wear off, you probably won’t buy what they’re selling.

Time to decide

At this point you may find it surprising that I am of the opinion that all else being equal, action is better than inaction. But here’s the thing: rarely is it true that the options are equal. In fact, almost never. The differences become clearer when you examine choices and potential outcomes beyond a cursory level.

The key is to avoid bias in either direction - for action or inaction. Don’t let instinctual impulses dictate your decision. Instead, employ sound decision making strategies such as these:

1) Take a moment to reflect on your emotional state. Are you in a high state of fear or anger? Allow some time for the edge to come off before making a decision that could have a major impact on you or others.

2) Consider 2nd level consequences of all options, whether active or inactive. The immediate outcomes may be obvious, but what are the potential effects of those in the longer term? Do those effects help you achieve your goals?

3) You may need to make a decision quickly because of a brief window of opportunity. Act, but be sure to assess the risk first and have a pivot plan or two – a plan B and C. If later data indicates you are moving in the wrong direction, be open and ready to course correct.

Employing even a simple decision making process can be enough to add clarity and insight into whether action is better than inaction.

Think well and be well!

- Steve

Good decision making requires good inputs. Check out my post on improving how we process information in a time of crisis.

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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