Escalation of Commitmentt

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Staw and Ross (1986), Brockner (1992), Drummond (1995, 1997) and Newman and Sabherwal (1996) provide a somewhat simplistic behavioral rationale to illustrate escalation in its simplest form:  as someone waiting an inordinate amount of time for a bus when walking to the destination would be much faster.  Or, as the research suggests, continued investment in the stock market, commitment to a failed relationship, pouring more money into a “lemon” of a car.  Or, as Brockner proffers (Brockner, 1992), escalation theory can be explained simply by the example of someone being stuck in a queue that was going nowhere.  The thought process surrounding this situation is one of continued investment in time when the outcome may appear nebulous.  Balancing the investment of time and the individual’s decision of standing in a queue that was stagnant to that of making a decision to move away.  The initial decision to stand in line is undermined by the delay in movement but strengthened by the level of commitment and self-justification of the initial decision made by the individual to stand in the queue in the first place.  Perhaps, but as any man knows when standing in a line at a grocery store checkout, the length of time standing and waiting in line to cash out has an inverse relationship to the length of the line!  The sheer simplicity of these examples to explain escalation of commitment and the social, behavioural underpinnings at play are just too simple for words.  In all fairness to the researchers however, these examples were presented more for discussion purposes to illustrate the phenomenon of escalation than anything else.

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How long is too long?

Yet another explanation was presented in a social context that was even more bizarre. Consider Drummond’s case study to explain escalation (Drummond, 1997).  An employee, who turns out to be lazy and lacking initiative, is hired for a specific purpose.  It doesn’t work out.  A decision to fire him is consciously made.  In the process however, aversion sets in and the employer shirks away from the responsibility and continues to give the employee the benefit of the doubt.  The employer’s sense of self-justification in that initial decision of hiring may cause him to waiver, delay, and therefore exacerbate the situation as the relationship between employer and employee deteriorates to the point that it is affecting business.   Finally, in exasperation and after weeks of indecisiveness, the employee is fired.   Does this scenario equate to escalation of commitment on the employer’s part to keep the employee on in spite of the obvious difficulties? Perhaps it does as Drummond suggests (Drummond, 1997).  On the other hand, the experience may have more to do with the irrational inaction by the employer in a bounded and defined rational social environment that is the employee / employer relationship (Sargent, 1993).  There may be certain rules and mechanisms that make individuals react in a certain way when confronted with an unprecedented or an uncomfortable situation (Sargent, 1993).  The expectations of the employer when confronted with a listless, lazy employee may have upset his sense of equilibrium.  Couple that with an employer’s possible aversion to inter-personal social conflict, the expectations of the employee’s competence and initiative in light of his track record, and the decision to carry on in the hope that the employee would turn around, could be construed as an irrational expectation on the employer’s part.  Sargent’s Bounded Rationality in Macroeconomics (1993) suggests that good decisions are normally made when the decision maker can rationalize their decisions in a commonly understood environment.  Is Drummond’s example a case to explain escalation theory in its simplest form?  Perhaps, but perhaps this example of a seemingly out of control situation simply equates to a descriptive condition of a social consequence that manifests as a result of the employer’s irrational expectations and indecision.  In other words, escalation may merely be a cause and effect descriptive term of an uncomfortable social condition that intensifies over time.

Or it may be the millennial generation’s aversion to commitment.


I have a new book coming out soon, called “Red Jewel.”


The BAE of 1910

Robert Falcon Scott, South Pole, the Terra Nova expedition ...

An Ice Tunnel in the Antarctic

I am committed:

The British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 has been selected as a primary source for study in escalation theory and the determinants of commitment because it is so tragic in its outcome: the consequences of which are poignant even to this day.  It is a story that is generating renewed interest in leadership, endurance, and the social, moral characteristics and strengths of human endeavour when faced with unremitting and horrific environmental conditions. The fallout of this expedition moved an entire nation and the English world to mourn:  Fallout and consequences that instilled pathos and heroic meandering at a time when national pride and confidence were at ebb and the Armageddon that was trench warfare was about to be unleashed.  England needed English heroes and Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Oates and Evans fit the bill nicely.  It is of little consequence that Roald Amundsen forestalled Scott to the South Pole.  Scott’s was the better story: a story that inspired courage, instilled Victorian principles of gentlemanly conduct, and reflected Edwardian masculinity and moral fortitude.  Scott may have failed but his failure in the eyes of the English world was a heroic failure (Huntford, 1979).

What is really poignant, sad, and perhaps ironic is that Scott and his party need not have died.  He made some poor decisions; some of which went beyond comprehension.  Even when looking back on this Antarctic adventure from the luxury of a warm reading room one cannot help but question some key decisions that were made that would have significant consequences downstream.  What was Scott thinking?  What was his rational for taking the fifth man on the final push to the pole when all of his logistical planning called for four.  What made Scott make such a decision?  Perhaps we will never know but one thing is clear.  He was forthright in all of his decisions barely if ever taking or accepting advice or suggestions to a countervailing argument to his selected course of action.   In Scott’s defence however, unquestionable loyalty and subordinate subservience was the Royal Navy hierarchical culture at the turn of the century.  Nevertheless, England produced some fine leaders at the turn of the 20th Century. Admiral Fisher for one was bent on cleaning up what was becoming a complacent, inefficient autocracy that was the Royal Navy (Perry & Mason, 1974; Huntford, 1979).

Sort of like Trudeau’s commitment to take down the Freedom Convoy. He is committed to a failing course of action.

The Trudeau family Sunday dinner. The wife sure does look like Bonnie Henry…Be Calm… Be Safe…Be Kind


Escalation of Commitment

Or committing to a failing course of action:


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED, 2002) defines commitment as a state of being that holds people and organizations in a certain frame of mind.  It encompasses psychological and social factors that bind an individual or a group to a decision.  At the same time certain structural conditions exist that could lead to a sense of commitment that facilitates a behavior or a decision on a particular course of action to be irrevocable or difficult to change.  Paradoxically, commitment is also viewed as a pre-conditional attribute that is necessary for vision and leadership, persistence and determination to see a course of action through to its successful conclusion.

Commitment is important for purposeful action.  Indeed, without commitment and purpose there is little point in doing anything at all.  But what are the consequences when commitment is skewered in a negative sense?   What happens to the levels of commitment when a project, initiative or endeavour is faced with unforeseen and unmitigated risks?  What happens when the level of commitment escalates consciously or unconsciously in support of a course of action when that course of action has no merit when viewed from an external, independent review perspective?  What happens to an organization’s collective commitment when leadership is undermined by the lack of relevant information and knowledgeable resources?  What impact does escalation have on individual’s commitment when the perceived or expectant end result justifies the means – at any cost and at any effort?  In some respects when one views escalation and commitment there would appear to be more questions than answers!

The dichotomy here is that while commitment is essential for a successful outcome, escalation of commitment could undermine any initiative or endeavour with significant consequences to individuals and organizations.  This is especially evident when the initiative or course of action is confronted with unmitigated risk.  In an environment where there is a paucity of critical information and a lack of knowledgeable sources to draw upon when making critical decisions at a critical juncture of an endeavour, there may be a tendency to commit additional resources of time, energy, effort and money based solely on the premise that the initial investment will ultimately pay off.   Additional resources may be committed to an initiative based solely on personal or organizational speculation without due diligence to the costs, associated risks and knowledge that the endeavour is good business.  Like a compulsive gambler who continues to roll the dice knowing full well that the cards are probably stacked against him, escalation of commitment may in some respects equate to gambler’s addictive “rush” to forge ahead in spite of the financial risks and personal and sociological consequences.   Personal financial loss and well being may be of little importance to one gripped in an upward spiral of escalation.  There would appear to be no formidable bottom line or a line drawn in the sand to stop.

Perhaps escalation of commitment in its truest negative sense is not unlike any social or psychological inducement.  As with any addiction, the decision to quit or change direction and maintain an alternate course of action may not be as easy as it would appear to one not susceptible to the underlying obsessions.  Escalation of commitment therefore may be just an occurrence within the context of everyday life and not a phenomenon attached to out of control information system projects or relegated to the realm of major capital project management.  Whatever the dangers and pitfalls however, escalation of commitment and its associated social, psychological, structural and project determinants is worth further investigation especially in the context of its potential impact on knowledge and leadership in the decision making process.  Knowledge and leadership are considered to be the essential attributes when the time comes to make key and important decisions: decisions that are often made for the wrong reasons, may be uninformed, and are sometimes made against better judgment.

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