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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