The Slippery Slope Myth

by | Apr 23, 2019

No doubt you’ve seen this play out before.  Someone asks for a concession at work, for example, an employee with a sick daughter asks if she can work from home for a few days. The boss considers it but rejects the request because “if we allow this once, then before you know it, everyone will be demanding this.” Thus the “slippery slope” myth is perpetuated. 

Glaciers floating on arctic water

Rarely does anything positive come from decisions like this. The employee is unhappy, her co-workers are probably miffed that their boss showed little compassion (and might treat them the same way), and the boss is likely picking up on the dip in morale since word got out about his decision. Decisions based on the slippery slope rationale are classic lose-lose scenarios.

The inherent problem with this misguided approach is the over-use of linear thinking. The boss is worried about setting a precedent, fearful of the presumed consequences, and worried that his authority will appear diminished if he doesn’t uphold the rules.  In his defense, the boss is likely thinking it wouldn’t be fair to give one employee a break that  he’s not prepared (or can’t) give to all his staff. 

But this is a classic fear-based, clinical approach to leadership that misses the point. (It is also wrong simply on logical grounds because it makes the classic mistake of thinking that one single action will lead to dire consequences as a result). In the example given, providing a specific benefit to one employee will trigger a landslide of similar requests that will damage the organization.  

Linear thinking works well when circumstances call for “either/or” binary decisions, e.g. safety measures, emergency situations, etc). The boss in this scenario thinks he has only two choices: approve or reject the employee’s request.  Comply or don’t comply with the rules. 

This is an example of applying linear thinking when a shift to circular thinking offers better results. In this situation where employees’ sense of wellbeing, freedom of choice and deep engagement are at play, circular thinking can yield more meaningful, helpful decisions.

Applying the “yes, and” principle of the circular world (rather than the “either/or approach of the linear world) can generate goodwill throughout the organization. People will understand that they work in a flexible environment, a caring workplace, a place where being human matters. In this instance, “yes” means we can continue to work well and meet our objectives, “and”, we can do that better by providing staff with flexibility, customization and agency according to their unique needs. Think about it, what is more likely to make an employee do their job well: tell them that rules are impossible to review and adjust, or, provide them with a response that is considerate of their very human needs? 

If this and similar scenarios were viewed through the lens of circular thinking, everything changes for the better. For example, the power dynamic in the circular world is generative. Rather than exerting his will even against resistance (the classic linear use of power and the zero sum game in action), the boss would see his power is rooted in helping himself and others reach their full potential. The employee feels valued and trusted as she works from home, the other staff know that their boss can be compassionate and discerning, and everyone can be empowered by this display of leadership acumen.

Now, you might be doubting this approach, assuming your linear thinking cap is firmly in place. What if the employee doesn’t deliver? What if more employees beat a path to the boss’ door expecting the same generosity? What if not having that employee around hurts team morale or effectiveness? These are serious, legitimate questions. The answer in each case is the same. The boss has to be ready to bring the team together in a spirit of transparency, mutual trust and candor and reframe the questions: What do we do well as a team? How can meet our collective goals and provide flexibility as needed? How can we learn from this experience to become an even more collaborative, trusting and empowered team?

Admittedly, this approach can be challenging at first, and there may be stumbles along the way as circular thinking takes root. But if all these experiences are seen as integral parts of growing together, they complement the organization, not diminish it.

The slippery slope approach is based on rules, not relationships, on power controlled, rather than shared, and on precedent trumping growth and creativity. But sometimes the principle of fairness, inherent to the slippery slope rational, is over-rated. Companies and organizations have learned that they can flourish, retain committed, gifted staff and attract good people when trust, empowerment and collaboration matter more than inflexible rules, controlling bosses and exaggerated fear of unintended consequences. In the linear world, risks are avoided and growth stunted, but in the circular world, risk is embraced and growth facilitated. 

Written by Laurie Anderson