Being slow to react can derail a career at the best of times
By MINDA ZETLIN
Making thoughtful decisions is good. But thinking for too long before deciding is very, very bad, especially for a leader. If you don’t believe me, consider the fate of (newly) former University of Missouri (UM) president Tim Wolfe.
Wolfe made headlines earlier today when he announced his resignation. He had little choice. In a state that’s been ripped apart for more than a year after a white police officer shot a black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Wolfe’s been accused of indifference to the hostility facing Mizzou’s black students.
Whether he actually is indifferent may be up for debate. But one thing’s for sure: He’s been too slow to act and react, too slow to make decisions, and too slow to communicate his thoughts at every stage of this controversy.
It’s a mistake that’s easy to make. As president of The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), I’ve made it myself. Being slow to react can derail a career at the best of times. Being slow to react during a time of crisis almost always leads to dire consequences.
For Wolfe and everyone else, here are some reasons it’s essential to make leadership decisions quickly:
1. Time may work against you.
It’s human nature to think that conditions don’t change, and that whatever you have to decide can wait a few hours, days, or weeks until you’ve given the question thorough consideration.
But that’s almost never true – few situations stay static for long in our changing world. Sometimes waiting can work to your advantage, for instance when you’re trying to decide whether to fire someone and he or she decides to quit. More often, the situation will deteriorate while you decide what to do, as it did at UM.
2. Your lack of response creates more problems than responding would.
This is a lesson Wolfe learned the hard way. A small but very well-organised group of black students linked arms in front of his car during the school’s homecoming parade and made short speeches about racial inequality throughout the history of UM.
This went on for about 10 minutes, during which the protesters were confronted by some white onlookers and then joined by others, till they were finally removed by police. Wolfe sat in his car saying nothing throughout the entire event.
Any response – from ordering the students to move to getting out of the car to talk with them – would have been preferable to just sitting there. In his subsequent apology, Wolfe explained that he was not uncaring, he was “caught off guard in that moment.“ But that apology came way too late.
In the weeks that followed the protest, Wolfe stayed silent while tempers continued to fray. On November 2, one of the protesters went on a hunger strike – after a swastika was drawn in feces on the wall of a new residence hall.
In fact, he did not issue his apology until this past weekend – after 30 Mizzou football players, joined by their coach, announced they would refuse to play until Wolfe resigned and the hunger strike ended. This move raised the stakes considerably, since canceling an upcoming game with Brigham Young could have cost US$1 million.
It’s fair to guess that without the football players’ stance, Wolfe never would have apologised. Even if that’s not true, the move was rightly seen as much too late.
3. Your late decision affects others in unexpected ways.
In one non – race – related example, the university delayed telling graduate students it would no longer give them payments toward their health plan expenses until 13 hours before those plans were to expire. The university cited an IRS rule prohibiting such payments–a rule administrators knew about at least three weeks earlier.
The last – minute announcement backfired, as they often can. Graduate students walked out and the administration had to backpedal, eventually paying its portion of the health plans via fellowships. In another unintended consequence, the school’s incensed graduate students (who often work as teaching assistants or in other roles) have begun the process of unionizing.
4. Few decisions are irreversible.
Let’s say Wolfe had taken steps to send the students to jail. That would have led to more protests, and would likely have been the wrong decision. He could always have reversed that decision later, freeing them, welcoming them to his office for dialogue, and making public his intention to create greater racial balance in the faculty and curriculum.
Most decisions you make can be changed at a later point. You may fear being seen as a flip – flopper. But giving a clear explanation of what inspired you to change your mind should mostly silence those critics. In any case, it’s much better to flip – flop than to do nothing at all.
5. It gives you the opportunity to apologise.
Even better, if you need to backtrack from a bad decision, you may get the chance to apologise. Apologising is an incredibly powerful thing to do. It can defuse your harshest critics and gain you respect from most others.
If, as in Wolfe’s case, you are seeking to mend fences with an angry group of constituents or customers, an apology can be a big help. And you’re likely to gain the respect of those on the sidelines who know it takes wisdom and insight to admit that you were wrong.
Two caveats though. First, your apology must be sincere or it won’t work. And whatever you do, don’t wait–as Wolfe did–until you obviously have no choice.
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. This article first appeared on Inc.com