Decision Making

A Street Called “Brid Geout” – The Problem with a Bias for Action

bias for action

Remember the classic Roadrunner cartoons? Each episode would feature Wile E. Coyote, rated one of the nastiest villains of all time, pursuing and attempting to eat the Roadrunner.

Always imaginative, the Coyote used all manner of elaborate and complex devices to catch his prey. Sadly for the Coyote, the devices would either fail spectacularly or work perfectly but in ways that always came out badly for him. It was not unusual for the Acme speed skates, for example, to let the Coyote almost catch the Roadrunner, only to have the Roadrunner make a sharp left leaving the Coyote to go straight over the side of the cliff. Don’t worry, the Coyote was tough. He could fall thousands of feet and only injure his dignity.

Wile E. Coyote may be a villain, but he’s also someone who never, ever, gives up. He hits the bottom of that cliff, dusts himself off, and embarks on his next cunning plan to catch the Roadrunner. You have to hand it to the Coyote: no matter how many times he got blown up, fell off a cliff, run over, had boulders fall on him, or had his Acme products malfunction in countless other ways, he never hesitates, never doubts himself. Truly, the Coyote has a bias for action.

“A bias for action,” is, by an interesting coincidence, exactly how Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad described his company in a recent article by Quartz titled, “Engineer asks Quora which job offer to take. CEO replies: not ours.

According to this article, an engineer with job offers from Zenefits and Uber speculated on Quora about which company would be the best place to start his career. Apparently, the fact that the engineer wasn’t sure was just absolutely unreasonable in the mind of Parker Conrad, who rescinded the job offer. Conrad further stated that one of his company’s values is a “bias towards action,” and so when someone has doubts that’s a bad sign.

Now, let’s face it, too much doubt can be a problem. There is real truth to the saying that “he who hesitates is lost.” However, there is also something to be said for stopping to think and consider the consequences of an action. The Coyote might have benefited from the occasional doubt; perhaps it would have helped him plan better, or at least consider buying his gadgets from someone other than Acme.

Tom Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM was famous for, amongst other things, getting feedback from people. He knew everyone in the company and he listened to what they had to say. Conversely, when an emergency struck, he also knew how to jump into action: in one famous Tom Watson story, a train bringing IBMers to the World’s Fair derailed in the middle of the night. Watson got the phone call and was within an hour was out in the middle of Nowhere, New York, organizing the rescue effort.

There’s an important lesson here: in a real emergency, it’s time to act. Much of the time, though, pausing to think is not a bad idea. Even in an emergency, correct action is critical!

Beyond that, though, there is a difference between effective action and action for its own sake. Taking action is easy. Taking the right actions often requires planning and consideration. Indeed, one of the surest signs of a bad leader is someone who refuses to stop and consider alternatives or the possibility of failure. If you’re zipping down the road at high speed, it’s not such a bad idea to hesitate if the sign you just passed displayed the rather unusual street name, “Brid Geout.”

After reading countless articles that appeared in the days following the 2012 elections, we know that Mitt Romney truly believed he was going to win: he viewed it as inevitable. He even had the internal polls to prove it. Why was no one pushing back on those internal numbers and questioning their internal assumptions? And if someone was pushing back, why was no one listening? Teams work better when someone plays the role of “Devil’s Advocate,” asking the uncomfortable questions and pushing people to justify their assumptions. The Devil’s Advocate is only effective, though, if the leader is willing to be questioned and there exists sufficient trust on the team that members don’t believe they’ll be punished for bringing up unpleasant topics. A leader who appears to lash out or act impulsively, as Conrad certainly appeared to do by publically rescinding the job offer, is sending a very clear message that you cross him at your own peril. That is not exactly the best way to engender trust.

I would imagine, though, that Conrad viewed the engineer’s speculation as implicit criticism of Zenefits. Either that or he just could not stomach the idea that someone might turn down his company in favor of Uber. Better to just rescind the offer rather than face rejection. An attitude like that is bad enough in a low level manager or individual contributor, but it can be downright dangerous when it’s the CEO. Change it: fear and insecurity only lead to harmful, and avoidable, errors.

It takes confidence to make a job offer, and even more to accept the fact that you might be rejected by the candidate. A leader who is truly confident can accept the loss and move on; someone whose confidence is brittle, however, cannot. He needs to protect his ego. Say what you’d like about Wile E. Coyote, he isn’t afraid to fail. Failure is only a problem when nothing is learned from it. Properly done, the interviewing process can also be used to build the sort of excitement that will have a candidate eager to say yes. Unfortunately, it’ll be lot harder now for Zenefits to find out how they missed. That’s the real failure, not having a candidate express doubts.

In a very real sense, Parker Conrad did this unknown engineer a real favor. His actions say a great deal about his style of leadership and his company. It’s much better to find out that the CEO can’t handle criticism or lacks tolerance for questions before you’ve taken the job rather than after.

The engineer who posted the question got the best possible answer: a demonstration of what working for Zenefits would be like. It’s hard to do better than that.

About the Author

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.