Closure than you think

What is closure and why is it important?

In July 2016, the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services announced that the remains of U.S. Army Air Corps Private Evans Overbey had been returned to his family. It was almost 75 years after he died from malnutrition and medical neglect on November 19, 1942 while in a Japanese-operated POW camp at Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon, Philippines.

Overbey was buried at the time in a common grave in the camp cemetery. Advancements in DNA testing and forensic analysis allowed the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to positively identify Overbey in late 2015. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said that, “There is reverent closure in finally bringing [Overbey] back to his home state to be buried among our fallen heroes, where his family will be joined by his community to offer an appropriate farewell."

What exactly is this widely used concept “closure”? Do all people have a similar need for closure? And, how is it relevant for work life and leadership?

Need for closure

There are two somewhat related meanings to the concept of closure. The first, which is most prominent in the research literature, is related to the need, when faced with a decision, to end the state of uncertainty as quickly as feasible. University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues have studied need for closure extensively. They depict someone with a high need for closure as feeling a certain degree of urgency to come to resolution, as opposed to waiting for more information that could perhaps better inform the decision. By contrast, a person with a low need for closure is willing to sacrifice timeliness and live with ambiguity in order to make a maximally informed decision. (Those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test will recognize similarities to the Judging versus Perceiving dimension).

Society values each tendency, depending on the circumstances. At one level, those who can tolerate ambiguity and not be distressed by uncertainty have the potential to come up with more creative solutions to problems and more novel approaches. On the other hand, moving toward closure is more efficient — it’s a better way to clear one’s plate and mind, without revisiting decisions endlessly. Negotiators and scientists may flourish best with a low need for closure, while many front line managers strive to survive by deciding quickly and cutting off further reconsideration.

Veterans of the military who have moved to the civilian workplace believe that their experience making decisions in a high-pressure environment helps them become more decisive and action-oriented. They often deplore what they see as decision paralysis in some civilian organizations, where not making a poor or unpopular decision becomes a more important criterion than making a timely or effective one. They see stalling and tabling decisions not as tolerance of ambiguity but rather as a shirking of responsibility. As in many cases, it is useful for managers to align their approaches to closure with the demands of the job and to be aware of their subordinates’ needs. Too great a need for closure may stifle problem-solving, and yet too little may leave subordinates dangling and waiting for direction.

Desire for closure

Another meaning of closure is related to a situation of uncertainty that one has no (or only partial) control over. The lack of resolution can prey on the person and may involve emotions such as fear, anxiety, rage or helplessness, so that the desire for closure may be seen as a way to reduce those feelings. Extreme examples of desire for closure may include the situation of a soldier missing in action, a kidnapped child, or a criminal not yet brought to justice.

However, more mundane aspects of life also elicit desire for closure. People waiting to hear if they were accepted by a college, if they were offered a job or a contract, or the results of medical tests, are all situations in which closure would be strongly preferred. Closure may be withheld tactically (as in the case of a kidnapper) or out of laziness, though in some cases the clarifying information may not yet be available, as in the case of Evans Overbey.

Often, closure is achieved by receiving sad news, such as the finding of a body. One may say that when hope of positive resolution was high, the bad news overwhelms the benefits of closure. When hope has faded, closure may be the best one can hope for.

While desire for closure is often presumed to be universal, people certainly differ in how they cope with the lack of it. Some will stoically or fatalistically accept the lack of closure, while others become obsessed and try to “leave no stone unturned.” Some may be prone to rumination and may find it hard to concentrate and enjoy other aspects of life, while others may successfully use compartmentalization to continue to thrive.

As in many anomalies of life, people who want closure when they are enveloped in uncertainty don’t necessarily feel they owe it to others. They may promise it (“I’ll let you know in two weeks if you are hired”) but never find the time or the courage to deliver bad news. If you and your organization aim to live by the Golden Rule, why not satisfy others’ desire for closure in the way you would want for yourselves?

Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in 2016 in Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.