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Should you stay or should you go?

You know how it is when you notice the first signs you might be heading down the wrong path. Your situation at the office seems a little more tenuous. Your clients—are they beginning to lose enthusiasm for your work? Your spouse maybe seems a little distant lately.

A figurative yellow warning light begins to flash. And what happens when we ignore that warning light?

Sometimes, it goes away. The risk recedes. We might make a slight shift or maybe we decide we’ll definitely stay the course. Either way, we can relax and proceed in the direction we’ve been heading, secure in our belief that it is, in fact, the right direction.

We might even have a moment of pride. “See? I’m not a quitter.” “I don’t give up easily.” “When I get knocked down, I get right back up and stay in the fight.”

Our history books, our business and political lore are loaded with stories of heroes who persevered in the face of obstacles and setbacks, kept trying, refused to toss in the towel. They always met with success—and admiration—in the end.

On the other hand …

Some of us have thrown good money after bad, desperate to salvage a business that should have been allowed to die a decent death long before we got so far in debt, only to watch the company crater in the end.

We’ve stuck it out in a miserable marriage, unwilling to admit that the two of us just aren’t right for each other…and maybe we never were. We add unhappy year to unhappy year until it feels almost too late to do anything about it.

That job that long since stopped being fun or fulfilling?  We come home from work at the end of the day beaten down by the pressure, stressed to the max, worried about our future. And yet we get up in the morning and go back to work. Because of the paycheck, or the commitment we made, or we’re this/close to retiring and we just can’t face starting over.

We like to think it’s about grit and determination. Committing to our goals, doing the work, and seeing things through to the end.

Maybe we’re just caught in a trap.

My interest was piqued when I read a piece by Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant who had a name for this admittedly familiar situation.

In all those scenarios and many more, Grant says, we’re caught up in “escalation of commitment to a losing course of action.”

Instead of heeding the signals and changing course, we double down on what’s not working, certain the situation will turn around and we’ll find success in the end.

You hear about sunk costs. We’ve already spent so much time or money or both, we just can’t acknowledge that the project, the relationship, or the business isn’t going to work out. Sunk costs can be quicksand for organizations and for individuals.

Escalation of commitment is something else though. It’s not just about the time or the money or some other resource. It’s about emotion. About ego. About being desperate not to be seen as a loser.

And, as Grant explains in the New York Times, “escalation is most likely when people are directly responsible for and publicly attached to a decision, when it has been a long journey and the end is in sight, and when they have reasons to be confident that they can succeed.”

We’re watching this play out in politics.

President Biden’s been under pressure to step aside, well, for a long time now, but especially since his debate with Donald Trump. Pundits, pollsters, and some Democratic lawmakers are weighing in, often vociferously. Many say it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation; others argue for staying committed to the current course.

As I write this, the conversation is ongoing and Biden is dug in, stating clearly and repeatedly that he has no intention of abandoning his campaign for re-election.

The president is talking with close advisers, friends, and especially his family. They vigorously support his decision to stay in the race. But what about those other opinions?

This is where we can learn something from his situation.

The Biden clan is all in for the president. Of course they’re bucking him up, encouraging him, telling him he’s got this. They’re family!

Beyond that, he’s the president, for cryin’ out loud. I can well imagine that it’s tough for any of his staff or supporters to be completely candid with him, especially about subjects as fraught as his age, his health, and his unpopularity.

Biden would do well to give equal attention to people with some distance from his situation. Never-Trump Republicans, maybe, whose focus is defeating Trump, not bolstering Biden. Or perhaps people outside of politics altogether. Advisers who could be more dispassionate, who aren’t so invested in his happiness.

Do you have advisers like that?

We all need people who are interested in our situation, but not so deeply wrapped up in it that they sugar-coat it. Friends, maybe, although they might struggle to give us the straight story.

Perhaps professionals who are willing to speak up when they see us escalating our commitment to a losing course of action. An accountant, lawyer, or business coach can stand back from our own agita and help us see a way out.

I’ve been thinking about this for myself. Who would level with me if they thought I needed to course-correct?

I do have some pretty direct friends who might be candid with me. And I count on my mastermind group for dispassionate feedback. I hope I’m not putting too big a burden on them, but I believe my small group of fellow speakers would, well, speak up if they felt I’d made, or was about to make, a mistake.

I think I’ll bring up the question next time we meet. And I’m curious about who you count on for completely candid communication.