Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument about something that happened yesterday. And, let’s say that I actually win the argument. (This is highly theoretical).
The Greek philosophers who invented rhetoric classified arguments according to the tenses of the verbs used. Arguments in the past tense are about blame; we’re seeking to identify the guilty party. Arguments in the present tense are about values – we’re debating your values against mine. (These are often known as religious arguments). Arguments in the future tense are about choices and actions; we can decide something and take action on it. (Click here for more detail).
In our hypothetical situation, Suellen and I argue about something in the past. The purpose of the argument is to assign blame. I win the argument, so Suellen must be to blame. She’s at fault.
I win the argument so, bully for me. Since I’ve won, clearly I’m not to blame. I’m not the one at fault. I’m innocent. Maybe I do a little victory dance.
Let’s look at it from Suellen’s perspective. She lost the argument and, therefore, has to accept the blame. How does she feel? Probably not great. She may be annoyed or irritated. Or she might feel humiliated and ashamed. If I try to rub it in, she might get angry or even vengeful.
Now, Suellen is the woman I love … so why would I want her to feel that way? If someone else made her feel annoyed, humiliated, or angry, I would be very upset. I would seek to right the wrong. So why would I do it myself?
Winning an argument with someone I love means that I’ve won on a small scale but lost on a larger scale. I’ve come to realize that arguing in the past tense is useless. Winning one round simply initiates the next round. We can blame each other forever. What’s the point?
In the corporate world, the analogue to arguing in the past tense is known as sunk costs. Any good management textbook will tell you to ignore sunk costs when making a decision. Sunk costs are just that – they’re sunk. You can’t recover them. You can’t redeem them. You can’t do anything with them. Therefore, they should have no influence on the future.
Despite the warnings, we often factor sunk costs into our decisions. We don’t want to lose the money or time that we’ve already invested. And, as Roch Parayre points out in this video, corporations often create perverse incentives that lead us to make bad decisions about sunk costs.
Our decisions are about the future. Sunk costs and arguments about blame are about the past. As we’ve learned over and over again, past performance does not guarantee future results. We can’t change the past; we can change the future. So let’s argue less about the past and more about the future. When it comes to blame or sunk costs, the answer is simple: Don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t argue about it either.