Unseen Impacts of Our Decisions

In February 2018, in the publication The Library of Economics and Liberty, Robert Norton wrote,

“The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people – and especially of government – always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.”

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Choice is full of uncertainty.

Every time we make a choice, we make a bet over a particular set of outcomes that we think we can predict.

Sometimes we predict rightly, and sometimes we never see what is coming. We continually make decisions in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

All our choices, however, have consequences.

Some consequences are foreseen and predictable, and some are unseen and unpredictable—and these are the unintended consequences of our decisions.

Unintended consequences are not always adverse.  Many have beneficial and positive effects. Unfortunately, because they were not considered during the decision-making process, unintended consequences most often produce negative results.

Causes of Unintended Consequences.

Business leaders and entrepreneurs need to be aware of the unintended consequences of their decisions.  The three identified causes of unintended consequences are ignorance, error, and immediacy of interest.

Ignorance and error

In both of these cases, leaders make decisions on issues without considering the unintended consequences or before obtaining needed information. These are decisions that are not well thought; they are knee-jerk reactions to carelessly planned situations.

Successful business leaders know that they often have to make decisions before all necessary information is available to make a fully informed decision.

Understanding this, they listen to the opinions of their experts, and then rely on their own experience, common sense, and critical judgment.  In this way, they de-risk their decisions and minimize the chance of unintended consequences.

Immediacy of interest

This type of decision is where someone wants the intended consequence of an action so badly that they purposefully choose to ignore any unintended effects.  This decision is made to the peril of the decision-maker and their business.

One cause of immediacy of interest decisions is pride.  Because of this, arrogant leaders are rarely, if ever, successful over the long term.

Another cause of immediacy of interest decisions is the pressure to act, which in and of itself is a way of achieving results. The idea is to make a decision and hope that the unintended consequences are not as harmful as not making any decision at all.

This unfortunate decision-making process avoids questions about risk and cost, which oftentimes results in unethical or illegal acts?

To avoid immediacy of interest decisions, set high expectations for achieving great results, but make it clear to your organization that it is done honestly and ethically.

To avoid the causes of unintended consequences, surround yourself with people who will tell you what they think, not what you want to hear. Listen to your experts; they know more about the potential of unintended consequences than you do.

And remember, what you do reflects not only on you but on your organization and your colleagues as well.

The Bible

Galatians 6:7-8 says.

 “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”

The cost of ignoring the law of unintended consequences is high.

If you take a course of action solely because it feels right, or you are pressured to take a specific action even if it doesn’t feel right, there will always be adverse unintended consequences.

Feeling-driven decisions often have disastrous results. Remember, we reap what we sow, and if we are careless in our decision-making processes, we will always experience unintended consequences.