Is it always good to ‘do something rather than nothing’?

AUGUST 14 — More than 30 years ago, management guru Tom Peters published the landmark book, In Search Of Excellence, containing his observations of the corporate habits of the best companies in America. 

One of those habits cum principles was ”a bias for action” i.e. top performing companies have leaders and managers who are inclined towards doing, moving, taking action, etc.

This preference for action makes (obvious) sense, especially in places where the lepak culture has infiltrated its way into corporate culture. 

Intuitively, too, which leader wouldn’t prefer workers who naturally take steps to fix or create stuff? 

What, then, could possibly be wrong with a “bias for action”? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Consider: How many times have you witnessed a manager issuing an order which a) was poorly thought out and b) involved countless man-hours and c) took away resources from other on-going assignments? 

And everybody knows the dude gave that piece of instruction because he wanted to “look good”? Likewise, how many times have certain activities in the office been done simply because the “KPI needed to be met”?

And how many times have our politicians initiated pointless projects which, again, a) took away resources from other priorities and b) only encouraged nepotism and cronyism? 

It also doesn’t take a political genius to figure out that most of these ventures only happen because the MP in question wanted to project the image of “doing something.”

How many times have you personally wished you haven’t gone to that mall to buy that thing you didn’t need, which you did so only because you were bored or just “had to buy something”? 

How many times have you regretted uttering that phrase or remark, which you did only because you were uncomfortable staying silent?

How many parents are going broke because it’s the school holidays and, well, the family “should go somewhere”? 

Behold, the action bias i.e. that irrational human tendency to prefer action even if the costs are ultimately higher than inaction, and even if maintaining the status quo (or plain waiting and being patient) would bring more benefits.

It’s like pushing the “Close” button in the lift. Seriously, do those three seconds saved really matter? 

Based on the ferocity with which people press the button, I’m guessing every milli-second counts. Then again, these same folks will spend hours checking trivial WhatsApp notifications, so I can’t tell. 

Understanding the action bias, however, suggests that it’s not the seconds saved but the need to do something—anything—instead of waiting.

Or like pedestrians waiting at the side of the road for the happy green man in the light to replace the stern-looking red man (and since we’re on this topic, why does the figure always look like a man? Don’t women cross roads, too?). 

There’s always a button there to press, presumably to speed up the change to green so we can cross the road. 

Does anybody still believe it makes a difference in time? In fact, in some countries many of these devices are simply dud boxes with no electrical wiring whatsoever i.e. they’re there to give folks something to stab at with their fingers and elbows while they wait. Ergo, the action bias.

The ‘walk’ buttons pedestrians press to speed up the green light. Chances are it makes no difference at all, yet it caters to our need to ‘do something’ while waiting (i.e. our action bias). — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The ‘walk’ buttons pedestrians press to speed up the green light. Chances are it makes no difference at all, yet it caters to our need to ‘do something’ while waiting (i.e. our action bias). — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

In sum, elevator close-door buttons and pedestrian green-light buttons serve the purpose of making life less stressful by playing to the manner in which our brains are structured. 

These devices are there to soothe our psychological distaste for doing nothing, even if the end result of doing something is no different from, well, the opposite.

Saving ourselves from the action bias

Lifts and road-crossings are minor things. But, as mentioned, when corporate folks and politicians play havoc and create more risks simply because doing nothing (or doing less) doesn’t look good, our communities suffer.

Don’t you think Malaysia would benefit from one week of zero issues? As I write, the hot topics seem to be a call for atheists to be “hunted down” and canteen cup segregation in a certain school. 

The thing is, I can’t even remember what the issue was from the previous month. And I’m pretty sure in about two weeks’ time, I’ll forget there was a genius who declared that atheists don’t have the right to exist in Malaysia. 

My point: Is this anything in “Malaysian socio-political media” beyond being a phone-scrolling game we can’t help playing, and putting aside, and playing every week? 

In other words, could our concern with politics be simply an extension of the action bias, in that it ultimately boils down to a desire “to be upset with something rather than nothing”? 

Are Malaysians hard-wired to crave political sensation, scandal and stupidity every hour without which we feel life isn’t as worthwhile? 

Could we be responsible for the very bad news we curse at, by virtue of our constant attention to it? Would a sustained period away from such news be too over-bearing?

Maybe we need bold leaders to declare, heck, let’s just stop doing more. Let’s finish the work we have already. 

Complete the important tasks first and quit coming up with new initiatives. And when all is done, why not take a gratuitously long rest and nip “work-related stress” in the butt?

Maybe teachers and parents need to stop sending their kids to tuition or “extra classes.” Or, better yet, quit worrying about academic achievement for a second and let the natural interests, learning and inclinations of the young develop spontaneously.

Finally, for us over-enthusiastic Malaysian foodies out there, you already know the problem of makan bias (which is really the action bias in gastronomic form i.e. eat something rather than do nothing). The solution? Stop eating. 

It helps.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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