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Jumping to confusion, maybe worse

I'm certain you have had the experience of watching someone jump to a conclusion on an issue or make a decision before either assembling all of the facts or hearing from all of the people who might have observed something pertinent.

As I write this column our nation is grieving with the Tucson, Ariz. families that lost a loved one or a friend or are suffering because a person close to them was wounded in the mass shooting on Jan. 8 that needlessly took six lives, wounded 14 and opened emotional wounds for many. Sadly, perhaps because we feel we a need to move quickly to communicate in the 21st century, a lot of misinformation and faulty conclusions were being circulated that will cause unnecessary confusion and frustration for thousands, if not millions.

An example of faulty information, likely a conclusion arrived at too quickly, was that the most prominent shooting victim, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was reported dead by several reliable news sources. Only later was that news retracted as the nation found that she was not only miraculously alive after a point blank head wound, but was also wonderfully responding to doctors commands as they tested her neurological health status post trauma. While this mistake was able to be corrected in a positive way, many faulty and premature conclusions result in terrible consequences.

A favorite 1940s movie of mine, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” touches on much of what can go wrong when people jump to conclusions. A group of people in an 1885 Nevada saloon that already upset with the amount of cattle rustling in their territory take fast action to form a posse based on a rumor that Larry Kincaid, a local rancher, has been killed. The posse's assumption is rustlers were responsible for Kincaid’s death. The local sheriff is out of town and his deputy becomes one of the leaders that incite the posse to action over the protests of calmer citizens who suggest waiting for the sheriff to return. The group confronts three strangers with cattle that have the slain rancher's brand, one of whom is a Mexican, one of whom is mentally challenged and a third stranger has no bill of sale. Unfortunately, the group decides to use mob justice and proceeds to hang the three despite protests from seven who try to delay things. Before the hanging, the third stranger writes a letter to be delivered to his wife and family. Later, after the hanging, the posse meets the sheriff who says that Kincaid is not dead and is under doctor's care. He also informs them that they caught those who rustled his cattle. One of the leaders of the posse eventually retires to his large house and shoots himself in despair. The remainder of the posse retires to the saloon, listens to the reading of the thoughtful letter written by the stranger and laments what they have done. They realize too late that there is no way to bring back the lives of those they killed.

The other lessons are many from this wonderfully written and superbly acted drama. The film touches on what can cause us to make mistakes and jump to rapid conclusions that make situations far worse than they would have been if calmer, more methodical approaches had been taken.

Lessons from “The Ox-Bow Incident” that pertain to our organizations:

  1. Speeding is dangerous. Other than situations when a mad gunman is loose, a building is on fire or an urgent crisis is at hand, the vast majority of decisions should not be made in haste--especially if we have not assembled all of the necessary information, eye witnesses, etc.
  2. Rumors are not facts. Experts tell us that even when people witness a situation, perceptions as to what was observed or experienced can vary greatly. Not only should we try to gather facts before assessing a situation, we should also recheck things. There is a tendency by some people to exaggerate, which can lead us astray. Check and check and check before deciding.
  3. Groups often make mistakes. Individuals can make mistakes (we've all done it), but so can groups–even well-educated groups. The errors of groups come from several factors at work. Some of them are:
    • There are people who dominate the discussion and often are folks that like to talk a lot more than listen–a bad combination. Talkers, from my experience also like to take quick actions especially if it is their idea. Be cautious to not let this happen when you are trying to make decisions.
    • There is a tendency to “go along with the crowd.” This has been given as the reason for mob violence because many assume that there is less of a feeling of responsibility if a group makes a decision.
    • We all have biases which can cloud our thinking. The implied assumption in “The Ox-Bow Incident” was that the Mexican, a foreigner, was a likely rustler and criminal.
    • If they haven't worked together before, a group hasn't established norms and processes to be effective in working together. This is true of posses, committees or task forces, teams, juries, etc.
    • Newly formed groups will tend to rely on leaders with titles or wealth or status. They might not be the best persons to have in charge; credentials do not necessarily equate with competence.
  4. There is always a need to practice good communication skills. We evolved with several ways to sense our environment: Observation, touching, hearing, and with our senses of taste and smell. We have the ability to ask questions, encourage others to share ideas and speak their minds. On the other hand, if we want to exert power, we can cut people off, discount their ideas or suggestions and believe we don't need any help. Sometimes when we go solo we can hit a home run, but often we strike out, hit a foul ball or make a bad play – especially when we think we have all the answers.

When something as critical as a human life, the future of an organization, a change in company policies or procedures, etc. is at stake, we must listen, ask questions and make sure we are actively trying to get input from everyone affected by the situation. A final thought---make sure you know where you will likely land before you jump to conclusions.

Sid Scott is president of Scott Consultants in Dubuque, Iowa. You may contact him by e-mailing