Prisoner’s Dilemmas-XXIII- Quiet Quitting

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By now, most of you are aware of the new workplace phenomenon known as Quiet Quitting. Forbes defines Quite Quitting as “..unsatisfied employees put forth the least amount of effort possible to keep their paychecks…”. Most employees might think they are clever for only doing the bare minimum, but managers have their strategy for handling underperforming employees; Dehiring. Instead of outright firing the troublesome employee, management directly acknowledges their dissatisfaction with the job role. The hope is that this might prompt them to find another job.

Dehiring has been described as a win-win scenario because it acknowledges the mutual frustration of the worker and the firm. Side-stepping the legal and psychological hurdles of navigating the labor laws governing terminating a subpar employee. However, what if either employee isn’t getting the hint? Managers tend to be ineffective due to poor communication skills, which could muddle the succinct message of “Please find a new job!”. If there is any breakdown in the messaging, both worker and their boss; will result in a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The ineffectual expression of shared frustration will make this process protracted and end in an actual firing.

The reward for Mutual Cooperation: R= .5

Either the employee or manager could hope; if they play hardball, the other will eventually fold. The manager ultimately hopes the employee will change their ways, it is always easier and cheaper to have a current employee change their attitude than find a new hire. Concurrently, worker wishes that rules will loosen up, higher pay, or lighter workload, banking on the fact that their boss “needs” them.

Both parties holding these zero-sum strategies are being obtuse; neither outcome is realistic. The best approach would be for each coalition in this game (company/management vs. unhappy worker) to directly and honestly express their concerns. Not only would this path be more efficient, but if the manager is faithful to the etiquette of dehiring, the problematic employee should have time to find a new job. 

·     Punishment for Defecting: P=0

It would be improbable to have a central authority that can definitively prove and punish either the manager or the worker for using passive-aggressive or unclear communication. Since this is a game-theoretical model, for the sake of simplicity, let us assign the punishment value at zero.

·     Temptation to Defect: T=1

As mentioned previously, it is tempting to adopt the longshot strategy; after all, either coalition gets all their preferred conditions met; with exerting the least effort possible. It is easy to view ambiguity as an excuse to hold out for a no-compromise solution. 

·     Sucker’s Payoff: S=-1

In a no-compromise strategy, it has win-take-all dynamics. The costs of buckling for either coalition are high. Arguably, the monetary costs are much higher for the firm, but the subjective evaluation of the worker’s disutility of conforming to their boss’s parameters would be difficult to measure. 

Condition 1:

· T>R>P>S

· 1> .5> 0 > -1

Condition 2:

· (T+S)/2<R

· (1+-1)/2 <.5

· (0)/2 <.5

· 0 < .5

Overall, it appears as if the Quiet Quitting controversy, sloppy communication combined with employees and employers giving into their desire to be lazy and have all their preferences met engenders a Prisoner’s Dilemma. 

The Abilene Paradox And The Collective Action Problem Are Both Cut From The Same Cloth

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This observation may be self-evident or even shallow, however, the Abilene Paradox is nothing more than the complete opposite of the Collective Action Problem. Both concepts demonstrate the pitfalls of the decision-making process but embody the extreme ends of the distribution. One demonstrates the follies of too much agreement in the decision-making process and the other details the difficulties of coordinating action when there are dissenting opinions and interests. These conceptions of the difficulties of managing agreement and disagreement provide us with the precepts to navigate the traps that impede effectual action.

In the Abilene Paradox, we drive towards disaster choices due to no one wanting to be the voice of dissent. The Collective Action Problem details how disagreement can paralyze us in the decision-making process which will immobilize the entire group from acting. Through understanding how to navigate these speedbumps in reaching unanimity will help us more efficiently coordinate various forms of group decision-making. Each of these concepts is applicable in a diverse number of settings ranging from the arenas of public policy, the boardroom, and even in the bedroom. I consent and or agreement is required it is imperative that everyone is on the same page. Not just merely trying to appease one another or being too bellicose and unwilling to compromise.

Why more theorists and management experts have not compared and contrasted these prevalent “agreement traps” is perplexing. However, from a superficial standpoint, one is nothing more than the inverted version of the other. The major difference between the two is most like the conditions under which both arise. These reciprocals may be linked a demonstrating the same problem, however, the defining variable that influences economic agents to either excessive amounts of agreement or following their divergent interests are likely context contingent. Contextual attributes such as incentives, personalities, external costs, penalties, cultural norms, societal affiliations, etc. can sway actors towards committing one of these fallacies over another. Neither of these challenges in the bargaining or agreement process yields optimal results, even us with either poor decision or incapacitated by inaction. Whether you are managing a nation, a company or a household all of these societal structures represent graduations in the scale of decision-making units. Making them susceptible to either over agreement or paucity of agreement, either is detrimental to all parties involved.

It is difficult to ascertain if a “golden-mean” can be found in striking the right degree of agreement. Again, what would strike the right ratio of consent-to-descent is highly contextually based. Choosing the wrong ice cream flavor does not carry the same magnitude of consequences as bombing the wrong country (hypothetically this is not an appeal for a hawkish foreign policy). The stakes are much higher in the latter example than in the first example of a decision gone wrong. A lot of this can be resolved through the constitutional basis for decision-making. In other words, what set of rules are established governing the initiation of choices. The seminal text of Public Choice Theory, The Calculus of Consent (1962) loosely defines constitutional decision-making as being any set of rules (two or more) governing the decision-making process. These rules do not need to be formally codified nor do they need to extend beyond a single person to be constitutional. Any means of quelling the concerns of group members of the fence can secure unanimity, whether it be through persuasion or compensation/ lessening of any external costs imposed on them can settle a disagreement. The role of the compensation would have to be implied in the rules guiding decision-making. Much how the articulation of opposition needs to be tolerated from group members to avoid an agreement for a course of action everyone knew would be calamitous. All because the group members want to conform to what they perceived was the desired action of the group. Anyone in leadership needs to have a tacit or formal understanding with their subordinates or constituents that constructive criticism is welcomed. If not you may be taking a long ride to Abilene!

Gresham’s Law Applied to Human Capital- Career Stagnation

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The premise behind Gresham’s Law is that money of a higher intrinsic value will be hoarded while the money of a lower substantive value but legally recognized as having the same nominal value will be circulated throughout the economy. Succinctly put, “..bad money drives out good money…” pithily sums up this economic phenomenon. However, is this occurrence solely confined to the commodity of money? Doesn’t the observations convey in Gresham’s Law applicable to other goods? For example, unless a baseball card collect is presented with an astronomically large monetary offer, odds are they will be unwilling to part with a limited-run rookie card of a legendary major league player. This scenario reflects many of the assumptions regarding commodity value implicit in Gresham’s Law. Generally, rare collectibles are held on to, while mass-produced memorabilia is readily available at the local garage sale or swap meet. Most collectors will hang on to the items that are considered valuable unless another interested party can provide a commodity in exchange that exceeds the perceived value of the collectible held by the hobbyist in possession of the coveted item.

However, how does Gresham’s Law interact with the intangible commodity of human capital? A firm or a business unit within a firm would want to retain top-level talent and let go of the mediocre/poor performers. Before we can delve into this analysis we must distinguish what human capital is. Human capital is the economic value that the employee brings to the firm. Typically through their experience, education, certifications, knowledge of company procedures and policies, position-specific “tribal knowledge”, critical thinking skills, and other pertinent soft skills. For readers who have never worked in a corporate environment before tribal knowledge is the informal and unwritten knowledge of best practices of how to perform within a specific job role. It stands to reason that a potential employee possessing all of these attributes would be a hot commodity on the job market. If currently employed by a company would be an employee of a high value.

If human capital is valued in a similar sense to other commodities such as money, how do businesses act in a manner to retain this high-quality talent? The answer most human resources representatives would give is that their organization creates an environment that fosters career advancement. Stressing the perks such as tuition reimbursement, possession of company stock options, and opportunities for placement in vertical job positions. While these factors may play a role in some employees choosing to work long-term for the same company, there is another variable that HR will not be forthright about. That is oftentimes exceptional employees with a high degree of human capital end up getting pigeonholed to the same role. Oftentimes these individuals are blocked from transferring to other business units or positions within the company by the request of middle and executive management. The reason behind limiting this MVP’s potential is quite pragmatic, the business unit cannot afford to lose this individual. Their skills and knowledge are essential to the day-to-day operations of the business. It would be nearly impossible to fill the void if they were to get promoted or transition to a lateral position within the firm. In the corporate world, this individual may be referred to as a subject matter expert or colloquially known as a SME.

It should be noted that the desperate attempts of management to relegate this individual to the same job role has the propensity to backfire. Why? Because this individual gets fed up with their limited job prospects and ends seeking career advancement at another firm. In a free market for employment, a high-quality employee has many prospective options when it comes to their career. If a firm stubbornly, confines them to a shallow career path they will simply look for employment at another company.

The Road to Abilene is Paved with Good Intentions (Abilene Paradox)

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Let’s Take a Ride Down  to Abilene:

As the old saying goes often we”… go along to get along…” in order to avoid conflict. However, is harmony coerced by social pressure really the best approach to decision making? Especially when the stakes are high? All too frequently we end up making decisions that conform to our peers and superiors reflecting the phenomena known as groupthink. What happens when a group of individuals makes decisions predicated upon the assumed preferences of the group? For good measure let us add the hypothetical dimension that all the other members of the group do the same; however, no one truly believes that they are making a good decision. Yet collectively as a group, they proceed despite their misgivings.


The recently detailed scenario sounds completely absurd. Such a situation is antithetical to reason and too farfetched to be a common occurrence. In reality, it is exceedingly common. The prevalence of this phenomenon spans the pressure cookers of boardrooms and battlefields to the bedroom. Exampflying the fact while humans have the capacity for reason, we are not inherently reasonable. This fallacy afflicting internal group dynamics goes by the moniker of The Abilene Paradox. The phrase was first coined by a social psychologist and professor of management science by Jerry Harvey in 1974 [1].


Professor Harvey named the paradox after an ill-fated drive to a cafeteria in  Abilene, Texas. Harvey, his wife, and his in-laws had spent the hot July afternoon playing dominoes and drinking lemonade. Then Harvey’s father-in-law makes the suggestion to make the 106 miles/ round trip to the cafeteria in Abilene. Did I mention it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit on that very afternoon?  Plus,  per Professor Harvey:


I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?” [2]


Certainly has all the ingredients for a joyful road trip, doesn’t it? Oppressive heat and dangerously inclement weather, unfortunately, circumstances don’t improve. The food was abhorrently bad so much so that Harvey stated:

The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.  [3]

After the long and daunting trip back to Coleman, Texas there was a long bout of Silence among  Harvey and his reluctant journey companions. Harvey then sparks a contentious conversation by blurting out ““It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” [4].  Unwittingly, spurring an argument that raged until the wee hours of the morning. The truth reared its ugly head, no one really wanted to undertake the pilgrimage to Abilene for subpar food. Rather,  everyone agreed to well based upon the assumption that everyone else really wanted to go. Once the truth came to light tempers flared and finger-pointing ensued.



Why Are We Susceptible to Such a Fallacy?


While many may see the Abilene Paradox as a predominately psychological phenomenon,  I would personally classify it as a logical fallacy with a strong basis in psychology. Acting upon a set of information you know is faulty or that will lead to ruin is the abdication of reason. Even if agreeing with the group is intended to appease everyone, it will invariably yield detrimental results. We attempt to rationalize such an erroneous abandonment of consequential commonsense by reassuring ourselves that we are conforming to the will of our peers and superiors.  Not only are we making an error in judgment by agreeing to actions that we already know will yield poor results,  but it is also incorrect to assume that all parties are on board. Each of the individuals in the car ride to Abilene did not have sufficient evidence to conclude that they were the odd-man-out.  The only one with apprehensions about taking the long and arduous trip to a third-rate cafeteria. It was patently obvious that the conditions were a recipe for a miserable trip, but no one spoke up.  Odds are if something is saliently problematic you aren’t the only individual who thinks so.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”  [5]

This Japanese proverb does not lend itself to sound and pragmatic decisions in the boardroom. However, it does provide some insight into why we surrender our facilities to such absurdity. Professor Harvey makes the counterintuitive claim that this paradox arises from mismanagement of agreement rather than from conflict [6]. Harvey views this being at the core of this perplexing quirk of human interaction with 6 sub- symptoms.

1. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. For example, members of the Abilene group agreed that they were enjoying themselves sitting in front of the fan, sipping lemonade, and playing dominoes.

2. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face. For members of the Abilene group “more of the same” was a solution that would have adequately satisfied their individual and collective desires.

3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality. Each member of the Abilene group, for example, communicated inaccurate data to other members of the organization. The data, in effect, said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s go to Abilene, ” when in reality members of the organization individually and collectively preferred to stay in Coleman.

4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes. Thus, the Abilene group went to Abilene when it preferred to do something else.

5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another. Such phenomena were illustrated in the Abilene group by the “culprit” argument that occurred when we had returned to the comfort of the fan.

6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue — the inability to manage agreement —the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. The Abilene group, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which was that it became conscious of the process, did not reach that point. (Page 4) [7]


It is important to remember that while the Abilene Paradox is applicable to a variety of different situations Harvey oriented towards business management.  Due to the fact that at the time he was a professor of management science. The underlying pattern of sub-symptoms stems from faulty assumptions and a  lack of clear and honest communication. These deficits enable the paradox to occur often leading to pathologic group dynamics until resolution has been reached. The irony is an attempt to circumvent conflict resulting in fracturing and finger-pointing. At the heart of all of the internal frustration is the unfulfilled wish that someone articulated their concerns sooner.


On a  deeper level, the paradox examples our deep longing to fostering and maintain relationships. Connections ranging from friendships to professional relationships.  Even the bitter hermit hopes for sincere companionship. Aristotle,  the renown classical philosopher, pontificated upon the virtues of friendship. Connecting with other people has proven itself to be an enduring human yearning. Even the sterile confines of a corporate boardroom can relinquish the pursuit of peer approval. Circling back to the previously quoted Japanese proverb, it may yield shoddy advice in the realm of decision making, but provides great insight into the human condition. Being  “nailed down” is being ridiculed by our peers. Being “nailed down” is being ostracized for expressing an unpopular opinion. No one wants to be the thrid-wheel or the weirdo. Despite any defense mechanism utilized to combat being maligned by your peers, it is merely a means to cope. Not a reflection of reality. Smoke and mirrors.

Professor Harvey reflects upon this fact of humanity and how it is connected to the Abilene Paradox. Professor Harvey:

One is tempted to say that the core of the paradox lies in the individual’s fear of the unknown. Actually, we do not fear what is unknown, but we are afraid of things we do know about. What do we know about that frightens us into such apparently inexplicable organizational behavior? Separation, alienation, and loneliness are things we do know about —and fear. Both research and experience indicate that ostracism is one of the most powerful punishments that can be devised. Solitary confinement does not draw its coercive strength from physical deprivation. The evidence is overwhelming that we have a fundamental need to be connected, engaged, and related and a reciprocal need not to be separated or alone. Everyone of us, though, has experienced aloneness. From the time the umbilical cord was cut, we have experienced the real anguish of separation —broken friendships, divorces, deaths, and exclusions. C. P. Snow vividly described the tragic interplay between loneliness and connection (Pages 9-10) [8].


The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions:


Our intentions and outcomes are independent of one another and it is a cumbersome reality to come to terms with. Even actions with the most beneficent of intentions can yield heinously awful results. For instance, U.S. military officials thought it would be a really keen idea to oust Saddam Hussein out of power in Bagdad. The idea of freeing a constituency from decades of tyranny seems superficially Nobel. However, the region never became stable to sustain a democracy resulting in a power vacuum. Creating an opportunity for any gang, terrorist cell, or tribe bloodthirst enough to go the extra mile to seize power. Despite anyone’s intentions or motives, it was a complete disaster. Tax dollars squandered and lives expended for a failed socio-politico experiment. While  I am not a full-on consequentialist,  I still believe that outcomes are morally imperative in the decision-making process. Ignorance does not excuse any externalities incurred especially when it comes to the loss of life.

While a road trip to an abominable cafeteria may seem like a frivolous example of bad decision-making it merely the allegory for a grander concept. It is the applicability of the story that makes it important. Professor Harvey even demonstrates how the paradox was applicable to the Watergate Scandal [9].  The scandal in the eyes of many Americans compromised the presidency in an irreversible fashion. Meaning that it eroded the trust in arguably the most powerful decision-maker in the free world. While institutional transparency is important it is eclipsed by the decision of going to war. The stakes are much higher!  The lives of your constituents are on the line. The circumstances precipitating such a decision need be beyond justified,  due to the levity of the consequences. The true tragedy becomes when someone in Congress votes for a war that none of his constituents wanted (a conflict he even had reservations about entering) and then his constituents vocally support the war to appear patriotic. The Abilene Paradox can apply to decisions ranging from going to war or something as mundane as where to grab some dinner.