People have “a preference for action over inaction” according to a study by economists that looked at the behavior of professional football (soccer in the U.S.) goalies when faced with penalty kicks. These goalies are much more likely to leap to one side of the goal or the other in anticipation of the direction of the kick, rather than stay in the center of the goal where their chances of a save are better. This study was published in the October 2007 issue of The Journal of Economic Psychology and then reported by the business section of the New York Times. After interviewing the goalies about how they felt about what they did, the researchers concluded that, for many, the reason they have this tendency to act rather than stay put is because if they act and fail, they don’t feel as bad as when they don’t act and fail.
It’s a leap (please excuse the pun) in logic to assume that a preference for action drives every decision, but this research does raise questions about how that preference might affect behavior of people in organizations. Are managers more likely to interfere in delegated tasks? Are team leaders more likely to move ahead on initiatives? Are executives more likely to agree to mergers and acquisitions? Do these things happen because managers cannot refrain from taking action even when doing nothing might be better? In my work, I am always looking for ways to improve performance interventions. The study of goalkeepers reminds me that sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.