Monday, June 10, 2013

The Law of Unintended Consequences

A long time ago, I was watching TV at home alone. My wife was out with the kids. I heard the washer stop and thought I would be helpful. I pulled the clothes out of the wash and into the dryer. I thought I was helping my wife (and thought I would get grief if I didn't do it..., looking back I should have known better since she didn't tell me to do it).
Little did I know that there was several items in the washer which DID NOT belong in a dryer. It was an expensive lesson, and one where my wife was frustrated with me, to the point where she asked me if I ever did laundry before in my life.

If you're wondering, the answer is yes; but I'm a guy, so all my stuff goes from wash to dry, and for the longest time I didn't understand the importance of sorting colors. I think I still have some "white" shirts with a green hue to them.

And now I don't touch the laundry unless it is to fold it.

I bring this up because this weekend my wife had a similar experience.

On Friday, my wife got into a kick. A construction kick. She did a little work outside on a birdbath, worked on some shelving, then thought she would be nice. About 8 months ago, I purchased a new desk which came with a hutch. I built the desk, but not the hutch. She decided she would be nice, build the hutch and then surprise me with it when I got home.

The response to the surprise wasn't what she expected. I left the hutch in the box because I was concerned about how the computer layout would work on the desk with the loss of space. I have a desktop setup with two monitors, split with a KVM to a docking station for my work laptop (which uses one of the two desktop monitors), and a home laptop I use more often than the desktop. That is a lot of workspace, and I was pretty sure the hutch would cause issues; but the desk came with it. Instead, I someday intended to build shelving attached to the walls (someday probably being never, admittedly with my schedule), so that I could maintain the desk space and get some storage, the hutch was NEVER coming out of the box.

In addition, she moved paperwork and CDs on the desk, in order to create space for the hutch. Now, I am not the cleanest person in the world, and the office was dissolving into stacks of paper, but I know where the stacks were, and what was in them. It was safe to say that nothing is where I thought it would be.

Regrettably, she didn't get a warm thank you for her efforts. Instead, what I saw was the need to reorganize  and run computer cables, as well as figure out how to position the monitors and laptops in order to be used again. In addition, I now didn't know where certain paperwork was, and had a deep sense of frustration even stepping into the office because I knew I would have to address most of this before I could do the other things I wanted to do this weekend.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

End result: As my wife put it, I've been rather "snarky" this whole weekend. 

I share this for two reasons. One, we all do things that we think are helpful, but may not realize that our actions have unintended consequences. The Law of Unintended Consequences (popularized by American Sociologist Robert K. Merton) states that unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful act. My wife purposefully built the hutch, thinking she was being helpful. The hutch would (in her mind) provide more storage space around my desk, clear floor space in my office, and allow her to build a side table (also in a box in my office, perhaps another potential unintended consequence). The unintended consequences were a frustrated and "snarky" husband who was forced to reorganize his work space, rerun cables, sort paperwork, and as an additional consequence, a large portion of the office space, in order to feel productive in his own space.

As a leader in the outside world, we have team members who are overworked, stressed, whatever, and most of us would like to help them. We may think about shifting tasks to less stressed personnel or sometimes even perform actions in the thought that they will be surprised and happy that the work is done. I can almost universally say this: DON'T!

If the person doesn't know that the activity is being performed, then I can almost guarantee that the person will find fault, especially if the person has a specific plan to execute (or not in my case) for the item/activity at hand. Surprises (unless they are parties or gifts, rather than actions) are rarely accepted with the kindness with which they are extended; and can even cause increased stress and work for that person.

So are you supposed to stop helping your co-workers, friends, or family?


But the next time you think about helping someone, it will be more effective to discuss (COMMUNICATE) the path forward with them, in order to determine a couple of things:

1. Is the help even wanted, or will it cause problems (real or imagined)?
2. Is there a specific manner or outcome the recipient requires or expects?
3. Are there items that need to be addressed first, prior to the activity you identified?
4. Are there reasons why this activity wasn't performed already?

The second reason to share this incident was that I needed to figure out how to apologize to my wife for being frustrated and "snarky" most of the weekend (Sorry honey, I know you were only trying to help, and I love you).

Image courtesy of bigjom at

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