Unintended Consequences

stopping the domino effectYour actions have consequences. Sometimes they are unintended and unforeseen ones. Other times, they are exactly the ones you envisioned and hoped to initiate. Individuals, families and workplaces are complex organisms with multiple constantly changing parts and pieces. If you push in one direction, the organism may pop in several different directions.

Examples of unintended consequences.

Suggesting a way to earn extra money to someone.

A person, trying to help a family member figure out how to pay taxes on their home and thus be able to keep possession of the fully paid off home suggested that the family member take in a roommate to earn some extra money. The family member did so, without running background checks on her potential roommate, and without cleaning up the home to provide a safe and healthy environment.

The intention was to get some extra money and get the real estate taxes paid.

The actual result was that the new roommate was accused of robbing the next door neighbor, and was followed into the home by the police.  This caused the home to be condemned as unfit for human habitation and the real estate taxes not to be paid.

Could these unintended consequences have been prevented by the person making the suggestion? Maybe, but probably not. However, that person could have put the suggestion in context and made stronger recommendations as to how to screen, clean and save the money. He could have thought through the likely implementation of the money making suggestion in light of the proven habits and lifestyle of the family member, to see the potential negative impacts and try to counter them.

Influencing a home owner association to build up a reserve fund.

My condo association has been struggling for 6 years to build up a reserve fund to handle big future maintenance items, such as re-roofing. We finally convinced the board to map out future needs and come up with a plan to get there. Then the board decided to re-stain prematurely. In the annual meeting, the members have to approve the budget for the year, which included the staining, a $60 a month increase in fees and no improvement projects.

The intention I had was to get the members to build up the reserve fund, so I spoke in favor of postponing the staining until next year.

The actual result was that other members took that as an opportunity to take on several improvement projects this year, thereby using up any reserve funds we might accumulate with the increased $60 a month fee.

Could I have changed that result by anticipating the members’ reactions? Possibly, but not likely. These members have been spendthrifts since day one and have been lobbying for several unneeded (in my opinion) improvements for several years. They just don’t care about a reserve fund. They want what they want and don’t care if we have to do special assessments to preserve the value of the property. However, I could have thought it through better. These members also never look at the budget, and didn’t initially understand that their pet projects weren’t in it. I could have just motioned to pass the budget instead of initiating a discussion about the staining. Don’t you hate politics! I do, which is why I wanted it out in the open as to what the budget allowed.

How to mitigate the possibility of unintended consequences.

Know the environment.

Study the situation, person, organization or issue to understand the culture, the past behavior, the likely future behavior and the thought processes that are in play.

Think through both the positive and negative possibilities of your position, action or words.

In light of the environment, how might your actions or words bring about the result you desire? How might they cause unintended reactions? Identify as many potential negative reactions to your proposal or comment as you can.

Know that you won’t ever identify all of them, people and organizations are just too complex. Even in pool, breaking the balls can have unexpected spin-offs – even though we sort of understand the laws of physics. We have not come close to understanding psychology of individuals or the complex interplay between individuals and organizations. So, don’t blame yourself if something unintended does happen.

Confer with others to see what you may have missed.

Two brains can really be better than one. Present the situation to someone you trust – preferably to someone uninvolved – to get some other ideas on what unintended consequences might occur.

Identify possible actions to deal with the potential negative consequences.

For each consequence, both positive and negative, that you identify, come up with some kind of a plan to deal with it, to potentially turn the negative into a positive or to reinforce the positive consequence.

Think through what you say and what you do. Remember that your words and actions do have consequences – try to make sure those consequences are the ones you intend.

Will your actions cause unintended consequences?

If you pick up the toys every day in your toddler’s room, the unintended consequence might be that she may become a clutter-er later in life because she never learned the satisfaction of cleaning her room.

If you give your kids everything they want, they will never have a burning need to fill and may never decide to DO something to GET what they want or need.

If you give into your desire to eat out at the fast food joint every day, you may develop a habit that leads to financial imbalance or heath issues.

What unintended consequences have your words or actions caused?


Unintended Consequences — 13 Comments

  1. Oh, I’m sure I have set some unintended consequences in motion. Once I convinced my sister to refinance her house since their mortgage was somewhere near 6%. Instead of saving the money, they went out and bought a new motorcycle =)

  2. It’s not my duty to baby sit anyone, so most advice should only have good consequences (meaning the ‘target’ will do something to improve their lives). It’s not up to us to control how they do it.

    • For some folks, it is difficult to realize that they don’t/can’t and probably shouldn’t control other people’s actions.

  3. I am usually careful with any advice I give to people. I typically try to couch it in my own experience, “Well, if it were me, I would do so-and-so.” I cannot think of any unintended circumstances that happened as a result of my advice. (Well, of course while growing up, there were some. “Hey bro, go ahead and jump off the roof. It’s fun.”) Perhaps it shows that most people don’t listen to my advice.

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