11.18.2007

WHEN NICE AND CAUTIOUS ISN'T GOOD

I am part of a lot of teams: my work is almost always done in project
groups, I sit on two boards and am part of a campaign, and at church
I'm on Session and in a small group. On these teams, I try to
represent my Christian faith, and to bring my managerial
training/experience and my economist's mindset to the table. And in
doing so, I am finding that my role on these teams is to remind folks
that sometimes, being nice and being cautious is not a good thing.

Come again? "Nice" and "cautious" are the kinds of traits that are
usually considered unassailable. Whether you are a Christian or just
seeking to be a good person, you should strive to be nice and you
should seek to exercise caution. The opposites of these words, "mean"
and "hasty," are generally considered bad things. So how is it that I
insist that the teams I'm part of are not doing right by being nice
and cautious?

Certainly, I'm not lobbying for more meanness and hastiness. But I do
want folks to understand that everything has a cost, and that you can
be too nice and too cautious. And if one properly values that cost,
all of a sudden, lots of situations arise when being nice and being
cautious is not the most prudent thing to do.

In economist-speak, when people have two choices, one with a small
payoff and no downside, and one with a larger payoff but a huge
downside, typically they will choose Door #1. However, what if Door
#1 actually did have a downside, and a pretty big one at that; and
what if the downside of Door #2, however huge, had a low probability
of occurrence? A lot of people would switch over to Door #2, and
they'd probably be right.

Let's get more specific, with four examples, the first two about being
too nice and the second two about being too cautious (note: some of the details of these examples have been changed, without altering their point but allowing for proper discretion):

1. My friend complains to me all the time about a fellow church
leader whose attitude has been poisonous to their church environment.
It is as clear as day to me that this person has to be evicted from
his leadership position. And yet, my friend tells me their pastor has
gone with a "good cop" approach, not only not cutting the cord but
even accommodating this leader's actions. Meanwhile, other leaders
have become disillusioned by the inaction, some wondering aloud about
this stain on the church's integrity.

2. At my old job, we let a nice but incompetent person hang around
far too long in his position. He was clearly not suited for the role
he had been assigned, but he was too good of a guy, and we too
desperate at the time, to make any changes. Everyone ended up
compensating for his mistakes, and he never got reassigned to another
role or to another company, where he might be more productive and more
happy.

3. Also at my old job, we once hired someone who failed spectacularly
at his job. Unfortunately, it was a pretty vital position within the
firm. So when we tried to find a new hire, we took several months,
just to make sure we didn't make the same mistake twice. After all,
we had all experienced the pain of the first hire, as well as the
outcry that ensued; who wanted to go through that again? Except that
our unusually long hiring process in the second case led to all sorts
of hidden yet substantial costs for our firm, most notably that an
eager and qualified candidate dropped out of the running after we
continued to delay and she had to take another job elsewhere, and
those of us on staff had to tend to this position's responsibilities
on the fly and without the proper training.

4. Our local transit agency has this annoying habit of stopping its
trolleys just short of the boarding platform, for a two-count, before
proceeding forward. I'm sure it's for safety reasons, to make sure
the trolley doesn't hit anyone; but the extra braking probably costs
the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and also results
in a vastly slower ride for its passengers.

Hopefully, you're starting to see what I mean by being too nice and
too cautious. Being too nice can mean not being courageous enough to
deal with a bad situation decisively, in a way that upholds the
integrity of an institution and that moves ill-suited people to places
where they are better gifted. It can be hard to have that tough
conversation, to tell a person that they're wrong or that they need to
go, but however tough it is also loving, for it sets that person
straight and it releases them (with feedback) to find something better
for themselves; really, to not have that conversation is a very
unloving thing to do to that person. Being nice might seem
Christianly, but it is the Christian who understands when it's time to
not be nice but rather to be loving.

And being too cautious can mean being so gun-shy about making an error
that the default is to do nothing, assuming there is no cost to doing
nothing. But inaction has its costs, and in some cases those costs
are more significant than the cost of making an error. There is, of
course, room for deliberation and analysis; but at some point, we have
to make the best choice possible with the information we have, and
trust God for the outcome. To over-deliberate is to run the risk of
disillusioning those who seek progress, see a way to it, and wonder
why we aren't faithfully and courageously taking it. Being cautious
might seem Christianly, but it is the Christian who understands that
we can only know so much, and the rest is for God to work out.

If people want to label me mean and hasty for having this point of
view, that's fine by me. I just want to make sure that the teams I'm
part of don't fall into the trap of thinking that being nice and being
cautious is always the way to go. And I just want to make sure that I
am living out what I believe, about God and organizations, and about
what is really prudent and loving and courageous and wise.

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