Pressure to Act: When Not Acting is the Best Answer

written by  Ryan Seamons

Archie Williams appeared on America’s Got Talent with an unusual back story. “I was just incarcerated for thirty-seven years for somebody else’s crime.” It makes his incredible singing all the more impactful.

I can’t imagine having my life taken away for a crime I didn’t commit.

It’s uncomfortably common to convict innocent people in the United States. Knowing that the Innocence Project has received more than 65,000 letters asking for help with cases is startling.

Even worse is the wrongful conviction of death row inmates.

Paul Graham’s latest essay is about why the death penalty shouldn’t exist. He doesn’t argue the morality of killing murderers but instead focuses on the statistics about wrongful conviction.

It’s at least 4%.

But why is this so common?

One reason is the pressure to act.

Here’s how almost every person is pressured to act in potentially unproductive ways when investigating a murder:

Police are under pressure to solve a crime that has gotten a lot of attention. When they find a suspect, they want to believe he’s guilty, and ignore or even destroy evidence suggesting otherwise. District attorneys want to be seen as effective and tough on crime, and in order to win convictions are willing to manipulate witnesses and withhold evidence. Court-appointed defense attorneys are overworked and often incompetent. There’s a ready supply of criminals willing to give false testimony in return for a lighter sentence, suggestible witnesses who can be made to say whatever police want, and bogus “experts” eager to claim that science proves the defendant is guilty. And juries want to believe them, since otherwise some terrible crime remains unsolved.”

Paul Graham, The Reason to End the Death Penalty

This isn’t true of every case, but it’s enough of a force to make wrongful convictions more common than one would hope.

At work, the implication of the pressure to act causes many negative behaviors and outcomes. You might recognize some of the ways you can cave to this pressure:

  • You want to be seen as supportive, so you only share positive things about an initiative you know is destined to fail.
  • You pick one of the first potential solutions and just go, instead of spending a little more time on divergent thinking to increase the chance of a positive solution.
  • You’re worried a team effort might not work, so you dictate everything that needs to happen.
  • You want your project to seem successful, so you don’t call attention to some of the risks.
  • You don’t want a dev team to be idle so you make sure they always have something to work on, even if it isn’t the most productive.

It can be uncomfortable to voice that something isn’t going to work, or when you have to slow down to get alignment. But getting comfortable with uncertainty and failure can actually make things more certain and less likely to fail.

In the legal system, and at work, the truth shall set you free. And sometimes the truth is that you aren’t ready to act.

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

Join Patterns for weekly ideas about making work better.

Also check out Manager School to become a better manager.