Meet One of the Biggest Villains in Leadership (and Five Antidotes to its Poison)

There’s a gnarly, insidious little villain that sucks the life out of your effectiveness as a leader, and it’s not what you think.

That sneaky scoundrel is your action bias.

“Whoa – what?! My action bias?!” you splutter into your latte. “But that’s a good thing isn’t it?! My bias for action is what gets stuff done! It’s what makes me productive! It’s what got me to where I am today – all go-gettum, bring it home, let’s get this thing done-ness!”

Well yes…aaaand no.

Let me turn to soccer goalies to show you what I mean.

Researchers looked at professional soccer goalkeepers when they defended against penalty kicks. They wanted to find out the most effective strategy for stopping the ball. You’d think that the goalies would be better off jumping to the right or to the left.

You’d be wrong. As it turns out, staying in the centre is the way to go.

The research showed that goalkeepers who dive to the right, stop the ball 12.6% of the time and those who dive to the left do only a little better: they stop the ball 14.2% of the time. But goalies who don’t move? They do the best of all and have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball!

But here’s the kicker (excuse the pun). Despite this fact, goalies stay in the centre only 6.3% of the time! Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (an action) in the wrong direction than to watch the ball go sailing by and never have moved (inaction).

Our action bias is usually an emotional reaction to the sense that we should do something, anything, even if we don’t know what to do. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to take action, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing would be the wiser choice.

If reading this feels squirmingly familiar, you’re not alone. This aversion to idleness, inaction and ‘letting it be’ is pandemic in organisations. In one study, researchers found that people feel more productive when they’re performing tasks rather than when they’re planning them. Especially when under the pump, they considered planning to be a waste of time —even when it led to better performance and prevented them from hurling themselves into the task head-first like a toddler at the party food table.

What’s the problem with this action bias rogue? It can lead us to jump into developing solutions before we fully understand the problem.

Doing nothing feels wasteful, fruitless, unproductive – I get that. But ironically, hanging back, observing, and exploring a situation is often the better choice, despite the counterintuitive vibe.

Choosing to be busy over real progress is the easy way out; being productive – truly productive – by contrast, is much more challenging. But knowing when to do nothing (and it’s more often than you think) is the ticket to effective leadership.

Here are five antidotes to your action bias scoundrel:

1. Build in time for reflection. At least 15 minutes a day – ideally more. This is best at the beginning or the end of the day – or both.

Thinking improves performance. In one Harvard study, they split a senior executive group into two. One group spent 15 minutes at the end of the day thinking, writing about and reflecting on what they had learnt. The other group carried on working for 15 minutes. The result? The reflectors improved performance in tests by 22%.

Building in time to think leads to higher quality decision making. It also builds your resilience.

Here are some ideas for what to reflect on:

  • What did I learn today?
  • What is the most important thing for us to focus on this week in order to get us closer to our goals?
  • What do I need to drop or stop as a result of what I learnt today?
  • With this choice in front of me right now, how can I broaden my options?

Brainstorm as many ideas to a problem as you can in 15 minutes without stopping – go for volume. Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages is a reflection method favoured by many overachievers in Tim Ferriss’ epic book Tools of Titans.

2. Include “do nothing” in your list of options next time you or your team are faced with an opportunity, a problem, or a decision. Ask, “what if we do nothing?” It’s likely to result in some furrowed brows, but it might just be the ticket.

3. Balance doing with being. As a leader, how you make people feel affects their motivation and is one of the most powerful things you can do to galvanise performance. Unless you’re keen to do it all yourself (didn’t think so), your focus should be more about painting a compelling vision, listening, supporting, coaching, providing direction – all of these are more about the ‘being’ of leadership than the ‘doing’ of leadership. How much of your week is currently about doing vs being? How can you get the balance right?

4. Become an essentialist. Ditch the superfluous. Weed out the white noise. Instead of spinning your wheels trying to get everything done, focus on getting the right things done. Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone and everything, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

5. Interfere less. Drop the meddling. Give your team members clear direction (especially about the desired end result), suss out what support they need, and then Get…Out…Of…The…Way.

There’s a beautiful concept in the Tao Te Ching – called Wu-wei. Wu-wei (无为), or non-doing, in Chinese, it literally means ‘doing nothing’.

So do yourself a favour this week – channel this concept of Wu-Wei – do less, kick that overused action bias to the curb, and watch how doing nothing is sometimes way, way better than doing something.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts from The Leader's Digest

Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

Welcome to

The Leader's Digest

Subscribe to The Leader’s Digest

Receive trending leadership topics and tips, straight to your inbox.

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Internationally Recognised


The Leader's Digest App