Postponing The Inevitable: Why we do it

A friend was going to postpone firing an employee knowing that inevitably the two were going to part company.  My friend isn’t alone in this desire, most of us have postponed taking actions that we found difficult and unpleasant.

Let’s take a look at why we do it and, more importantly, what it costs everyone involved when we postpone the inevitable.


The answers are simple. It’s

  • Unpleasant; often we’re going to cause someone else some pain.
  • Inconvenient.
  • Uncertain; we often aren’t sure how the future will be impacted.

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.


It doesn’t matter whether you’re about to fire an employee, end a personal relationship, quit enabling a loved one’s self-destructive behavior or telling a child that she can’t have something she wants, your action is going to inflict pain. For most of us, inflicting pain is as painful for us as the other person. It’s what makes us caring people…an aspect of ourselves that we don’t want to lose.

But here’s the flip side of the coin. We don’t realize that postponing the decision is inflicting pain albeit a milder, more chronic type of pain. Most employees know when their boss isn’t happy with them. Consequently they live in a constant state of anxiety wondering when their employment will be terminated and what they’ll do when it happens. Unfortunately, they rarely use that anxiety to seek other employment.

When you’re not happy in a personal relationship, the other person is aware that something is wrong…that the relationship is at risk. Yet, again, they rarely take action on their own. Instead they wait until you take action, then scramble to deal with the fallout of a failed relationship.

Saying no to a loved one who exhibits self-destructive behaviors or denying a child driving privileges because he isn’t demonstrating the maturity to handle that responsibility inflicts pain, but both parties could experience much greater physical as well as emotional pain if you postpone your decision.


My friend was concerned about the number of hours away from family would be required to assure the work got done if she terminated the employee’s employment. Ending a personal relationship might involve finding a new place to live or hiring someone to handle some of the duties previously handled by your partner.

Living with loved ones who are being denied what they want can drain one’s energy and make all aspects of life seem more challenging and exhausting.


Often when we make difficult decisions…almost all of which affect someone somewhere…we’re uncertain as to how things will play out. Fear of the unknown is one of the most debilitating fears we experience.


So far we’ve looked only at the costs most of us see in situations like this. We don’t look at the benefits of making the decision now much less what costs everyone will incur if we postpone the decision.

When we retain an employee who is disruptive or not performing to expectation, we’re placing an additional burden on the other employees. Ultimately that could cost us solid performers who are also great team players. By taking action now we increase the likelihood that our best performers will stay and that morale will improve dramatically as a result of having fired the problem employee. In my experience, productivity goes up as well which made my fear of a heavier workload ill-founded.

At the same time, the employee whose employment was terminated is freed of the anxiety the were experiencing daily and have an opportunity to find a better fit for their skills and interests. Early in my career I had two employees thank me a year after I ended their employment. They had both found a better fit and were happy in their new jobs.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see similar benefits from ending a personal relationship that is no longer working…despite repeated attempts to salvage it.

Saying ‘no’ to a loved one to at least avoid enabling behaviors that don’t serve them well may not afford them protection from themselves, but at least you can take solace in knowing that you’re not contributing to the pain they’re behaviors will produce.

For you

The next time you find yourself facing a difficult, unpleasant decision:

  • Ask yourself, “Is the outcome inevitable? Do I know that ultimately I’m going to have to take this action?” If so, act now.
  • Remind yourself that the people your decision will impact are already experiencing pain and anxiety. Remember that a caring person, which you are, would want to spare them that pain.
  • Recall how often a difficult decision ended up helping all concerned.
  • Remind yourself that postponing the decision will cause you a great deal of emotional pain, just as it does the other person. That pain will persist until you finally make the decision and take action.
  • Recall the number of times you, your friends and family members had something ‘bad’ happen only to find later that it was the best thing that could have happened.
  • Now make your decision, take the action needed knowing that you’re doing what’s in the best interests of all involved.

For our kids

As your kids see you doing what’s difficult with compassion and genuine concern for the welfare of others, as they ask you how you could do what you just did, they’ll come to learn that unpleasant decisions and actions often lead to a brighter future for everyone.

Also, whenever your kids talk about ‘bad’ things that happen, help them see the flip side, the ‘good’ that accompanies the ‘bad.’ Eventually, they’ll discover that nothing is either good or bad, it simply is. When that happens, they’ll free themselves of much of the fear, anxiety and frustration they previously experienced. In their stead, your kids will find joy, peace and happiness in everyday living…warts and all.

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2 Responses

  1. Livia

    I have been separated from my husband for 4yrs now and left my matrimonial home. I have 2boys ,20yrs and 16yrs. I know things aren’t working towards a reconciliation but it’s difficult to file a divorce kind of wondering for the boys though they are happy with me and life is normal for us.

    • dfurtwengler

      Livia, I’m sorry to hear that things didn’t work out in your marriage. There was no formal question in your comment although your statement that “it’s difficult to file a divorce” implies there is one. Given that you state that “they [your boys] are happy with me and life is normal for us” and given their ages, you seem to realize that they are not the reason why you’re hesitating. The sense I have is that you know why you’re hesitating, but you don’t want to admit to yourself what that reason is. Once you acknowledge the reason, you’ll find it easier to move forward.

      When I was still in corporate America I got hives. It was the first and only time I’ve experienced them. I went to the doctor and he said “There’s nothing physically wrong with you, the hives indicate that the source is emotional.” He wrote a prescription to ease the itching. As I left his office I saw a wastebasket. I pitched the prescription and went home instead of going to work. As I asked myself “What is upsetting me so much that I have the hives?” As I reflected on my life I realized I wasn’t happy with my job. Yes, I was a senior level executive with the pay and perks associated with the role, but I wasn’t happy. I made the decision to begin searching for a new job and my hives quickly went away. You’ll experience similar relief when you acknowledge the real reason behind your hesitancy for it will enable you to act quickly and decisively. All the best, Livia.

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