Research Paper By Heike Geiling
(Intercultural Coach, SWITZERLAND)
We all have been there and we surely know people who regularly step into the same trap: the overcommitment to a certain plan, objective, project, or relationship: escalation of commitment (EOC). Escalating commitment happens when someone continues to dedicate resources, including time and money, to a failing course of action. Since 1976(Staw,1976) many studies looked at different factors and influencers for this behavior especially in a corporate context analyzing broadband of management decisions. But escalating commitment does well exist outside the corporate world. It extends from the decision to keep waiting for a bus even though one would have reached the destination by foot in the meantime to the involvement of countries into a long lost war. (Staw, 1981) In movies, EOC comes to play when with the intent of saving one person many lives are lost. (e.g. Kong: Skull Island, 2017)
Any time people stick to their past decisions even though new evidence makes doing so irrational, situations get difficult and people find themselves stuck in the process as they have to repeatedly decide whether they should persevere or withdraw from their goal. In this paper, I would like to focus on how we can use insights from research in coaching individuals and help them to de-escalate commitment.
Studies show that “individuals’ persistence at a task at which they were failing was greater both when they sensed that they are drawing ever closer to their goals and when the goals were relatively high in value.” (Brockner, 1992, p. 40). What drives this escalation? What can coaching do to enable people to take a step back and reconsider their actions?
Looking at the factors that influence EOC, recent research mentions the following:
(reinforcement theory, information biasing)
- post-escalation regret
- cultural norms
- option partitioning
- expectancy theory
- theory of cognitive dissonance
- the prospect theory
- the decision dilemma theory
Some of the above-listed theories just supplement self-justification which seems to be the strongest driver for EOC (e.g. prospect theory can explain that greater sunk costs in a failing project increase the likelihood of persistence). To de-escalate commitment through coaching, I will concentrate on the main influencers that affect EOC by either reinforcing or weakening it: self-justification (reinforcement theory, information biasing), post-escalation regret, cultural norms, and option partitioning.
Self-justification (reinforcement theory, information biasing)
Self-justification, reinforcement theory, and information biasing are interconnected. Information biasing is used for self-justification as information is altered as needed (see below). Depending on previous experiences, reinforcement theory comes to play which again influences self-justification and information bias.
People tend to see only what accords with their beliefs. It is more convenient for us to interpret facts in a way that makes our past ideas appear better than they were. If facts challenge this opinion, we will find reasons to discredit the source of information or the quality of the data. “Managers may interpret bad news about a project as a personal failure. And, like most of us who are protective of our self-esteem, managers may hang on or even invest further resources to “prove” the project a success.” (Staw & Ross, 1987)
“In escalation situations, increasing commitments by making further investments in a failing course of action is a direct attempt to respond to the self-threat created by the negative feedback regarding an initial decision.” (Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky & Ku, 2008, p. 3)
Information biasing is used in attempts of self-justification as “[…] several studies have established that the preconditions for escalated commitment also influence the information that individuals seek (Conlon & Parks, 1987) as well as the information that they present to others (Caldwell & O’Reilly, 1982), further suggesting that a self-justification process was at work.” (Brockner, p. 49)
One factor that is also important to consider when looking at self-justification is “whether a decision-makers’ escalation stems from their need to justify previous investments in their own eyes, the eyes of others, or both.” (Brockner, p. 56) This differentiation whether self-justification is self-centered or other-centered is also reflected in a study that researched the opposing ways in which duty and achievement striving affect EOC. Here “duty is associated with an other-centered orientation and[…] achievement striving is associated with a self-centered orientation. […] Analyses […]showed that duty was associated with a de-escalation of commitment, achievement striving was associated with an escalation of commitment.” (Moon, H., 2001, p. 533) When exploring a potential EOC in a coaching situation, questions regarding this perspective might help the coachee to better understand their motivation.
The reinforcement theory describes that people tend to repeat a certain behavior if they are rewarded and to stop if they are punished. But we have to look at people’s history of rewards as well: some very successful people have persevered in very difficult times when the outlook of their projects had appeared negative. People with this kind of success history have a hard time accepting that their project is beyond a satisfactory risk. (Staw & Ross, 1987) The same theory also tells us that people become more persistent when they receive rewards intermittently. For a difficult relationship which one party tries to resolve, the desired behavior of the difficult partner from time to time can keep the other partner to hang on to the relationship beyond reason in the hope that the desired long-term change is close.
Reinforcement, information bias, and self-justification—three psychological factors that we’re all subject to—can keep us committed to projects or actions we have started.
Recent studies on post-escalation regret found that people do not only consider factors that occurred before an escalation decision (retrospective) but also factors that will occur after an escalation decision (prospective). If people anticipate future regret about their decision, they are more likely to de-escalate commitment so they will “choose the option that reduces the possibility of future regret under escalation situations.” (Wong & Kwong, 2007, p. 551). Directing the coachee’s view to the future and having them envision what this near future will look like might help to identify potential regret and can help to redirect the current course of action.
The research propositions of Geiger, Robertson & Irwin suggest that “EOC is more likely to occur in cultures characterized by varying degrees of masculinity, individualism, power distance, and uncertainty avoidance.” (Geiger, Robertson & Irwin, 1998, p. 173). Looking at EOC concerning Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, the authors propose that cultures high in masculinity, high in individualism, low in power distance, and low in uncertainty avoidance run higher risks of EOC. From this rather general approach, the coach can still gain insights into the coachee’s cultural background and consider specific cultural values that might increase EOC. In a lot of EOC situations described in studies, people were driven by their need to be consistent in their way of working which meant sticking to a once taken path or decision. In the Western world “Consistency is associated with intellectualism, rationality, honesty, and stability.” All of them being positively perceived values as such. So consistency in one’s decisions and the idea of sticking to a path once taken can be a culturally influenced escalation driver.
De-escalation of commitment is possible if people see a valuable alternative to their goal or objective. People who find themselves stuck in an escalation usually do not see this alternative or it does not present itself in either feasible or surmountable way. Studies show that people who can partition the alternative solution are very likely to de-escalate commitment as they break up the alternative into smaller parts that are easier to manage. Partitioning the escalation leads to the opposite: “[…] self-serving and self-justification motives lead people to focus mainly on the escalation option rather than on the alternative option, presumably because they want to look for information that is consistent with their previous belief […]” (Wong & Kwong, 2014), which then takes us back to self-justification and information biasing (see above).
How can coaching help to de-escalate commitment
To avoid EOC in organizations, certain measures can be put into place: a) publicly commit to clear goals and limits, b) increase monitoring, c) regularly evaluate project performance, d) de-institutionalize the project (Ku, p. 223). These measures can be transferred to individual coaching situations. a) In coaching, we usually refer to a publicly committed goal and limit as accountability. b) Individuals can increase monitoring by setting regular milestones for review with their accountability partners and c) regularly schedule coaching sessions to evaluate the project performance / the development of their endeavor with their coach. d) The idea of de-institutionalizing a project works on an individual’s project or objective level: by identifying repetitive patterns, unwritten laws, or underlying beliefs in coaching sessions, the person can break the behavioral pattern and find a different approach.
In most cases it is very difficult for a person to recognize overcommitment as the line between an optimistic can-do attitude and overcommitment is very thin. In a corporate setting, Staw and Ross suggest a range of questions to identify EOC. Based on these questions I developed a list of questions that can be used in a coaching situation to support a coachee in de-escalating their commitment in a current project, relationship, endeavor, objective, or similar. Questions listed below are in no way meant to be asked in a particular order or their completeness. They are just meant to support the coach’s approach in exploring with his/her client if s/he is stuck in EOC.
- What is most important to you about this project?
- What motivates you to achieve this goal?
- What would you consider failure for this project?
- How do you define failure?
- What is the impact on you if this project fails?
- What is the impact on others if this project fails?
- What are your current concerns about this project?
- What type of feedback did you receive so far?
- What feedback have you used so far to improve the outcome of your project?
- What importance has the success of this project for your life (other aspects of your life)?
- How close do you feel about achieving your goal?
- What have you done in the past to get you out of a similar situation?
- What are the benefits for you if this project succeeds?
- What would you do differently next time?
- Which of your values come to play while pursuing this project?
- What would be a good solution for you right now?
- What alternatives have you considered?
- What would be the benefits of this alternative?
- What could help you to better understand your alternative option(s)?
- What do you need to do next?
- What type of support would you need to change the course of your project?
- What could get in your way?
Questions to identify EOC in a corporate setting (Staw & Ross, 1987):
- Do I have trouble defining what would constitute failure for this project or decision? Is my definition of failure ambiguous, or does it shift as the project evolves?
- Would failure on this project radically change the way I think of myself as a manager or as a person? Have I bet the ranch on this venture for my career or my satisfaction?
- Do I have trouble hearing other people’s concerns about the project, and do I sometimes evaluate others’ competence based on their support for the project?
- Do I generally evaluate how various events and actions will affect the project before I think about how they’ll affect other areas of the organization or the company as a whole?
- Do I sometimes feel that if this project ends, there will be no tomorrow?
Brockner, Joel: The Escalation of Commitment to a Failing Course of Action: Toward Theoretical Progress; Academy of Management Review 1992, Vol. 17, No. 1, 39 – 61
Festinger, L.: A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press, 1957
Geiger, Scott W., Robertson, Christopher J. and Irwin, John G.: The impact of cultural values on an escalation of commitment; The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 1998, Vol. 6, No. 2 (April), pp. 165-176
Ku, Gillian: Learning to de-escalate: The effects of regret in escalation of commitment; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 105 (2008) 221 – 232
Moon, H.: The two faces of conscientiousness: Duty and achievement striving in an escalation of commitment dilemmas. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 2001, 533–540
Sivanathan, Niro; Molden, Daniel C.; Galinsky, Adam D.; Ku, Gillian: the promise and peril of self-affirmation in the de-escalation of commitment; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 107 (1) – Sep 1, 2008
Staw, Barry M.: Knee deep in the big muddy: A study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action (1976)
Staw, Barry M.: The Escalation of Commitment to a Course of Action; The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct. 1981), pp. 577-587
Staw, Barry M., and Ross, Jerry: Knowing when to pull the plug; Harvard Business Review 03/1987
Wong, Kin Fai Ellick; Kwong, Jessica Y. Y.: The Role of Anticipated Regret in Escalation of Commitment; Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 92 (2): 10 – Mar 1, 2007
Wong, Kin Fai Ellick; Kwong, Jessica Y. Y.: Reducing and Exaggerating Escalation of Commitment by Option Partitioning; Journal of Applied Psychology 99(4), January 2014
Wong, Kin Fai Ellick; Kwong, Jessica Y. Y.; Ng, Carmen K.: When Thinking Rationally Increases Biases: The Role of Rational Thinking Style in Escalation of Commitment; Applied Psychology: An International Review, 2008, 57 (2), 246 – 271
 Decision-makers look at the probability that additional allocations will lead to goal attainment and they consider the value of the goal attainment (Brockner, 1992, p. 40)
 In simple words: people do not like to admit that their past decisions were incorrect, so they reaffirm the correctness by becoming even more committed. Festinger, L. (1957).
 “Prospect theory is a behavioral model that shows how people decide between alternatives that involve risk and uncertainty (e.g. % likelihood of gains or losses). It demonstrates that people think in terms of expected utility relative to a reference point (e.g. current wealth) rather than absolute outcomes.” (www.behavioraleconomics.com)
 “A common example of decision theory stems from the prisoner’s dilemma in which two individuals are faced with an uncertain decision where the outcome is not only based on their personal decision, but also on that of the other individual.” (www.investopedia.com)
 Merriam-Webster online dictionary: institutionalize: to incorporate into a structured and often highly formalized system
 Staw, Barry M., and Ross, Jerry (1987), see appendix
 Any time “project” is used in this list, it works as a placeholder for “relationship”, “endeavor”, “objective”, “plan”, etc.