Unpredictable human behavior can be surprising

  • Friday, January 29, 2010 10:44am

We do not often think of management in terms of probabilities, but we should.

Whenever we take some management action, we are dealing with what is “likely” to happen. Human behavior is that way: predictable, yes, but not with absolute certainty.

Part of good management, then, is trying to get the odds on your side. And this often comes down to simply avoiding the paths, the choices, and the decisions that are likely to bring you grief.

Recent events at Texas Tech University provide us with a case study of management decisions that will very likely prove to be regrettable. As best we know from published reports, the situation that prompted the management actions in question began with an injury to a player on Texas Tech’s football team.

Adam James, a sophomore wide receiver, had suffered a mild concussion and could not join the regular team practice. Apparently it was usual for players with this type of medical condition to participate in the non-contact exercise routines conducted off the playing field but within sight of the coaching staff and the team members who were practicing.

Apparently, James showed up in street clothes and sunglasses rather than workout clothing and this upset the head football coach, Mike Leach. The coach had some words with James and reportedly punished him by making him stand, alone, in a dark place — an equipment storage room of some sort. On subsequent days, James did participate in the non-contact exercise routines.

The relationship between James and the head coach had been a bit strained all season. The wide receiver is the son of ESPN college football analyst Craig James, who reportedly communicated frequently with head coach Leach about his son’s playing time and other aspects of his participation in the program. It was the James’ family that complained that Adam had been mistreated after his injury — touching off the chain of management responses.

Shortly after receiving the complaint about mistreatment from James’s family, the University suspended Leach. Because that meant that he would not be allowed to coach the team in its upcoming Alamo Bowl game against Michigan State, Leach petitioned for and received a temporary court injunction lifting the suspension.

Instead of arguing its case in court, on Dec. 30 Texas Tech responded by firing Leach. The date is significant, for Leach’s contract called for an $800,000 bonus to be paid to him if he were the head coach on December 31. We do not know how this will all turn out, but from a management standpoint we can draw some conclusions about probabilities and odds.

At the initial point of this now-messy situation, what the University had in hand was a complaint from a football player’s family that the young man had been mistreated by his head coach. University authorities were correct to conduct a thorough investigation into this, certainly, but they also should have considered the odds of completing that investigation successfully in just a few days.

The alleged mistreatment occurred on Dec. 17 and shortly thereafter Leach was suspended. Those of us who have investigated workplace reports and allegations have come to realize that there are at least two sides to a story and there are often significant aspects of a case that do not come to light right away.

When the complaint of mistreatment was quickly followed by an inquiry about getting to play in the bowl game, what were the odds that the alleged mistreatment was serious enough to warrant immediate suspension of the head coach? And with the bowl game just a few days away, what were the odds that the head coach, with 10 years successful tenure behind him and who felt he was right, would simply accept the suspension and not take his case to court?

The interaction with the court system pushed the stakes higher, making it all the more important that the probabilities be considered. What are the odds, for example, that a jury would find the firing of the coach less than 24 hours before you were supposed to write him a check for $800,000 just a coincidence?

It is quite possible that the Texas Tech authorities did consider the probabilities and chose the path they took carefully. And it may turn out that they made precisely the right choices at every step in the process. Given the contentious relationship between the university and its coaches in the past, though, it seems unlikely.

What is likely is that Texas Tech will end up defending its decision-making process to a jury, or paying a lot of money to avoid that fate. And however it turns out, what are the odds that in the end this will look like good management?

James McCusker, a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant, writes “Your Business” in The Herald each Sunday. He can be reached by sending e-mail to otisrep@aol.com.

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