Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

The Rush to Closure: Decision Traps in Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
March 5, 2018

On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The United Nations request for a delay was ignored. Its Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission had found no evidence of WMD, and no WMD were later found. The United States became mired in a war whose negative side effects have lasted more than a decade.

Hindsight makes criticism easy. The war came just 18 months after September 11, 2001 in a world characterized by descriptors of the military acronym VUCA — vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. But the Bush Administration, anxious to act, rushed to closure. Post-war analysis by the Senate Intelligence Committee found alternative views on what was taking place in Iraq were either stifled or ignored.

Iraq is not unique. Both the 1992 Ruby Ridge and 1993 Branch Davidian tragedies were partly the result of impatience among federal officials unwilling to try less lethal means of ending these standoffs. The Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters were associated with managers who refused to keep their minds open to examining more data and options. On a daily basis, public administrators confront pressure to make decisions without delay. They create some of that pressure themselves.

Why the Rush to Closure?

The desire for closure is human. It’s why, in the diagram below, we see a triangle when there are only three “Pac-man” figures and no lines that actually make a triangle.

The need for closure varies psychologically and perhaps genetically. Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues created a Need for Closure Scale that can be self-administered and assesses the desire for predictability, order and structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness and close-mindedness. People with one shorter allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene (associated with greater emotional response to threat) have been found to show a higher level of the need for closure and greater discomfort with uncertainty.

There are powerful incentives in organizations to seek closure. Those who are seen as decisive are rewarded. Certainty sells. It looks like strength and reassures followers. Those who use a more deliberative approach may be cast as less confident, weak or engaged in “paralysis by analysis.” As author Jamie Holmes put it in reporting on a conversation with Kruglanski, the rush to closure can overcome a group as well as individuals: “In stressful situations, we trust people in our social group more and trust outsiders less. Fatigue heightens our appetite for order. So does time pressure. When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions and deny contradictions.”

How to Avoid This Decision Trap

Closure, of course, is essential. Without it, nothing gets done. It’s premature closure that is a trap. There are several strategies that can help avoid this error:

  • Know yourself. Assess your need for closure. If it is high, be forewarned about your tendency to decide before you may need to do so.
  • Reduce the emotional pressure that propels the rush to closure. This may come from being tired, under stress, your intolerance of ambiguity or outside pressure from the situation, your boss, and/or colleagues. Set a tentative decision aside and revisit it when you have had a chance to calm your emotions.
  • Structure the decision process to avoid the rush to closure. President Kennedy did this during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He set up a work group to generate and evaluate alternatives, purposely absented himself from some of their deliberations to reduce the pressure on him to decide and the pressure on them to defer to his superior status. He also refused to accept their initial plan to invade Cuba until they had come up with other options.
  • Use what the U.S. Army calls a “red team” — an independent, diverse group set up expressly to challenge your thinking and initial conclusions and decision.
  • Avoid cognitive dissonance: the pressure to make facts fit your initial decision because you don’t want to keep it open for debate. One way is to use a “pre-mortem.” Assume your decision will blow up and ask: why did it fail? The effort to answer that question opens up thinking that may not have been considered in the rush to closure.

Used in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, some of these approaches might have revealed that U.S. troops would not be greeted as liberators, that the decision to purge Bathists from any role in the new Iraqi government would leave the country unstable and ungovernable, and that other options were possible to deal with both Saddam Hussein and the threat he posed to the world. The rush to closure, unchecked, can become a rush to chaos.

Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)



The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to The Rush to Closure: Decision Traps in Public Service

  1. Anna Marie Schuh Reply

    March 6, 2018 at 8:27 am


    Generally, we applaud the quick decision maker and bemoan the decision maker who uses a more thoughtful approach. Thank you for explaining why we do this and why it is a problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *