The saying “Haste makes waste” has been around for centuries, but it’s more relevant today than ever. Between the hustle culture of today’s workplace and the instantaneous communication that smartphones enable, it’s easy to forget that just because we can take an immediate action doesn’t mean we should.
When we’re under pressure to make a decision, resolve a conflict or meet a target, emotion can start to overcome reason. Before we know it, we’re taking the fastest — but not the most sensible — path to our goal. In such moments, it helps to recall the meaning of that centuries-old proverb: rushing leads to mistakes that cost time, money, and relationships. I certainly could have avoided some costly mistakes by heeding this wisdom.
For much of my adult life, I managed to get by with only four hours of sleep a night. Until two years ago when I decided something had to change, this lack of proper sleep wreaked havoc on my mind and body. On a few occasions, the mountain of stress it created caused me to make regrettable decisions.
Years ago, I vividly recall waking up at 4 a.m., opening my email and reading a message from a junior colleague who seemed to be undermining my authority. The more I read the email, the more enraged I became. Only a week earlier, we’d had a similar encounter, but after a phone conversation about how we could be better partners, I thought I had resolved the issue. Now, feeling like those efforts had been futile, I was frustrated and chose to write a pre-dawn reply. Not a sensible action.
Sleep-deprived and exhausted, I was not in the best frame of mind to take any hasty action, let alone one that involved negotiating a professional relationship. Besides, the situation was not urgent or critically important. Nevertheless, emotion and exhaustion got the better of me; I reacted too quickly, and damage was done.
In the airline industry, pilots experience what they call “get-there-itis.” It cripples pilots’ ability to think clearly and pushes them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Disasters have occurred when a pilot attempted an ill-advised landing in bad weather just because the destination airport was so close. This phenomenon can actually occur in many industries. When the target seems to be within range or the decision-makers are dealing with stakeholder pressure, the mere idea of abandoning an intended course of action is unthinkable. Tunnel vision looms.
The consequences vary by industry but can include financial loss or, in the case of healthcare, patient death. In my case, the consequence of “get-there-itis” was never so dire, but I still created plenty of my own small disasters. In the case of my early-morning email, I now had the added work of repairing a relationship.
We’ve all been there. Even the forty accomplished and #remarkablewomen I interviewed for my upcoming book. For example, Julie Brush, a highly successful lawyer and entrepreneur in San Francisco, says, “I've made lots of mistakes, but perhaps the biggest one was before I attended law school.”
As an exceptional professional tennis player, Julie wanted to work at IMG, a global leader in sports, events, media and fashion. After seeing a professional athlete and his agent interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Julie decided to write to the athlete and his agent.
Proud of herself for taking such initiative, Julie was excited when she received a prompt reply from the head of the football division at IMG. Inside the envelope was the letter she had sent with all the typos circled and a note that said, “If you wrote this letter, you should fire yourself. Call me. Peter Johnson.” He had left the door open for her to contact him again, but Julie was still distraught about making such a poor first impression.
In my case and in Julie’s, the effects of our actions were confined to a few individuals, but in plenty of other cases, mistakes unfold on a grand and public stage. Host Steve Harvey’s announcing the wrong winner of the Miss Universe pageant in 2015 and Oscar presenters’ mistakenly naming La La Land as the best picture winner for 2017 are just a few recent examples.
Such prominent mistakes are probably the culmination of dozens of small errors and poor decisions by a variety of players. But whether we have a job to do as a member of a team or we’re just making decisions on our own personal career path, it’s a simple pause that can make all the difference—that moment when the voice in our heads says, “Maybe you should wait, or double-check, or get a second opinion,” and we listen. With that awareness, we stay focused on the big picture and are less likely to force quick resolutions.
As we begin a new year, it’s like we’ve been given a blank canvas on which to paint the experience of life we wish to have. Be bold. If new information comes along suggesting a different path might be prudent, take it to heart — even if that means pushing back against what’s been asked of you. But also, be patient. Take time to make decisions that won’t risk your relationships, your own reputation or that of your company. While it’s not always a matter of life or death, there’s usually some benefit from learning to wait. Julie and I wish we had waited a few hours. Our actions, and their consequences, would have been different.
How can business leaders create inclusive work environments? Learn three best practices in my recent article for Harvard Business Review.