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Closing the Door… on Closure

Poll ten highly successful people and you’ll likely find that nine have a very high need for closure.  You know that you’re among them if you:

  • Feel most comfortable when a meeting ends with a good recap and solid next steps.
  • Get an unusual sense of satisfaction out of crossing things off your to-do list.
  • Consistently are the one who can tell others where they left off with a story (primarily because you really need to know how it ended).
  • Sit in the car a moment longer to hear the end of the song.

While there’s a narrow, psychological definition of ‘closure’, what I’m talking about here is the more pedestrian, run-of-the-mill need to replace ambiguity  with clarity, confusion with order, uncertainty with firm answers, and what’s unfinished with completion.

Despite the strong need that many have for closure, some classic research suggests that leaving things a bit open may actually offer unexpected benefits. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik published research suggesting that humans remember better what’s incomplete. The upside of the discomfort we feel when faced with uncertainty or ambiguity is that it keeps the mind working, focusing, and trying to create an ending, answer, or resolution.

This Zeigarnik Effect is a powerful dynamic… one that individuals, leaders, and organizations fail to use to its full advantage. Imagine what we could accomplish if we tapped the mind’s ‘unfinished business’…

Students might learn and retain more by interrupting their studying and taking a break. (Studies show that studies who take such a break remember material better than those who don’t; Zeigarnik, 1927; McKinney 1935.)

Employees might welcome interruptions and consciously leverage the tension produced toward better results.

Leaders might feel a lot less pressure about having to wrap things up with a tidy bow. They might ask the hard questions that employees can’t answer on the spot, confident that their minds will continue to work the topics over.

Organizations might generate better solutions and capitalize on this motivation toward closure by putting business problems and opportunities out to others and letting them sit and percolate for a while rather than forcing an immediate (and sometimes sub-optimal) solution.

‘Unfinished business’ shouldn’t have a negative connotation… not when Dr. Zeigarnik describes that this ‘dynamic state of tension makes opportunities’.

So, what opportunities do you have to stop closing the loop? What could you accomplish if you just let your mind… (intentionally left incomplete!)

I’m grateful that Dan McCarthy originally posted this article on his blog in celebration of the launch of Help Them Grow or Watch them Go.  Please visit his site to learn more about the great work that he does!

Image: Liz Price


2 comments on “Closing the Door… on Closure

  1. Ashok M Vaishnav on

    Reading the article, itself, was so refreshing that unless one ‘looks’ at the link to its (first) posting of Dan McCarthy’s “Great Leadership”, you really doubt whether you had read this one before too.
    That speaks for opening of a loop was that was considerately closed, if there is reason enough.
    I had commented on the original article with an ending statement – It certainly makes sense to drive ahead with an eye on the rear-view mirror! Or Does it?.
    As re-read this (or in fact, read it as if reading it afresh), I do feel that as long as the intention is gain more clarity on the road ahead, it does make sense to peep back, even if just to ensure that there is no thing that could be learnt from that past.
    And add to that the powerful message the article provides – ‘dynamic state of tension makes opportunities’ of the intentionally ‘unfinished business’ – and we can see hitherto ‘unseen’ avenues opening up.

    Reply
  2. Jayant Rana on

    Fascinating article, beautifully written, and just love the ending! This really is intriguing, and I think it’s something we all (closure-seekers) have experienced in our lives, but all we feel is a sense of psychological discomfort…but this is totally another way to look at that discomfort, and think of it as a useful way to train our brain, etc.

    Reply

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