unintended consequences

by Kevin Eikenberry

As a leader you make decisions every day.  Some are bigger than others, and some may be bigger than we realize at the time. It is often these decisions with far reaching impact that we underestimate, or don’t spend enough time thinking about.  I believe we are facing a set of those decisions now, relating to what your future workplace will look like. 

Whether you are calling this your work policies, a re-entry plan, flexible work, hybrid teams, or something else, these are important decisions.  My goal today is to help you see these decisions for how big they are – why we should take them seriously.

The On-The-Surface Decision

On the surface this may seem pretty easy. We used to, as a general rule, have everyone work in the office or shared workspace together. The pandemic forced us out of our comfort zone and have most everyone work separately, most likely from home.  With the pandemic and related restrictions beginning to ease (or at least we can see that coming), the surface question is this: Where should people work in the future?  If the choice was as simple as bring everyone back to the office, or let’s keep working the way we have for the past 12 months, it might be pretty straight-forward.   

But even the staunchest advocates of face-to-face work teams realize the options are far broader than that.

The Long-Term Implications

Everyone who was forced to work from home has a different perspective and experiences than they had a year ago.  Most research is showing that a majority of people want to work away from the office at least part of the time in the future – a far higher number (with more real-life experience to rely on) than pre-pandemic surveys showed.  For organizations/leaders to simply decide the future of work based on hopes and emotions may not lead to the best decisions.  Just a few of the implications of these decisions include:

  • The future of collaboration and engagement in your organization
  • The future culture of the organization
  • Your ability to retain valuable talent
  • Your ability to attract the talent you desire/need
  • The skills (and skill needs) of all employees

It is pretty easy to see that the decision isn’t simply:  when are we bringing everyone back to the office?

Unintended Consequences?

Unintended outcomes are unseen results of an action or decision. They can be grouped into three types:

  • Unexpected benefits
  • Unexpected drawbacks
  • Perverse results (when the intended solution actually makes things worse)

I believe there are risks for the second two types in the decisions we will make about the future of work, if we aren’t careful.  If we take care and consider the causes of unintended consequences, our decision about the future of work, we have a chance to make a better decision for our organization – whatever that is – with fewer of these possible negative unintended consequences.  

How can we reduce the likelihood of all this?

Robert Merton, the creator of this phrase, identified several causes of unintended consequences, most of which I have listed below.  Look at these in the context of the decision you face organizationally now (with my comments in italics):

  • Ignorance of all the possible implications. While we might not be to anticipate everything, we can think about this more carefully as we make our decision.
  • Errors in analysis of the problem.  This is possible problem for any decision.
  • Following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation. Surely this one speaks to you in the current context.
  • Immediate interests overriding long-term interests. This one is one of my biggest concerns for leaders in this situation.  If you sense this, for the good of your organization, proceed carefully.
  • Basic values which may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable.  For example, if the basic values say we MUST work face-to-face to be successful, it will preclude considering other options.

Additionally, others have concluded (and my experience confirms this) that groupthink can be a be a source of decisions that lead to unintended consequences.  My thoughts on avoiding that can be read here.

Final Thoughts

I am not suggesting the perfect solution for your future of work. I am suggesting that both the decision itself and the way you make it (e.g. who you include, what information you consider, and how much you think about the future implications of your decisions) are far more important that we might realize.  If we don’t consider carefully and completely, we risk long-term consequences that we might avoid with a bit more time and effort spent now.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}