Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Assisted Living

Ian Ayres

Calls from the public for Justice Sonia Sotomayor to step down so that President Joe Biden can name a younger replacement are unlikely to be effective.  Advice from strangers often carries little weight or might even backfire if the recipient doesn’t want to seem to knuckle under political pressure.

Private suggestions from trusted colleagues are more likely to be taken seriously.  On a Sunday afternoon in 1932, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes visited Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his study and persuaded him to resign

But providing direct feedback can be daunting.  Direct feedback, even when it is asked for, can cause resentment.  Barry Nalebuff and I have argued that the common knowledge created by direct communication of criticism can ruin relationships. It’s hard to tell a friend that they have bad breath, because they know that you know their breath smells.  

In some cases, the law may also impede this kind of communication.   A dean who suggests that it is time for an older professor to retire might fear being accused of age discrimination.

But there is a way forward.  A few weeks ago, I sent a joint email to about a dozen of my colleagues and family, giving each of them “the opportunity now or anytime in the future to send me an anonymous message advising me to change my ways.”  I told them to feel free to make suggestions concerning large questions (such as when I should retire or stop driving a car) or smaller questions (such as whether I should use more deodorant) or really any mistaken choices they believe me to be making. 

The suggestion box idea is centuries old.  In 1721, a Japanese shōgun placed a suggestion box, called meyasubako, outside of Edo Castle both to collect new ideas and to expose “dishonesty and incompetence.”  During World War II, the defense department circulated a nine-minute film promoting suggestion boxes as a way to improve production efficiency.  Some states have a kind of suggestion box that allows family and friends to anonymously trigger a reexamination of someone’s driver’s license. Some professors supplement end-of-semester evaluations by providing their students with continual opportunities to send anonymous feedback.

But anonymous message platforms carry dangers. Such platforms that are open to the general public, whether they are in high school, college, or graduate school, all too often become toxic spaces of bullying and harassment.  Fortunately, today’s technology allows users to curate the group of potential responders to people they trust. 

I sent my email to a limited group of people that I admire and who see me in different professional and non-professional contexts.  They are well suited to advise me on issues that I worry about (such as when I should retire or stop driving), but I also chose a somewhat eclectic group of friends who might alert me to issues that were not on my radar screen. At a minimum, it is a fun thought-experiment to try to identify the group of people you would most trust to give you anonymous advice. 

My email told recipients that it was fine with me if they talked amongst themselves about whether an intervention is warranted.  Sometimes people will want to have their concern confirmed by others before speaking up.  Observing one driving error might not be concerning, but a pattern of negligence confirmed by others could be.

Asking for advice doesn’t commit me to follow each and every suggestion, but it signals that I welcome their feedback and intend to carefully consider any advice.Technology makes setting up a curated, anonymous suggestion box child’s play.  You can create one with google forms in a few minutes for free. Other apps (for a fee) allow you to write back to the person making a suggestion while maintaining their anonymity.

Most people – including you, dear reader -- will resist the opportunity to create their own suggestion box.  Some may believe that they are unlikely to have blind spots in their decision making.  Others may not be able to identify a group of people who are well-positioned to see their mistakes.  Still others will doubt that the people who see their mistakes would need anonymity in order to provide advice.  I ask you to question whether these excuses are plausible. 

Suggestion boxes are not foolproof.  At times, the advice details will reveal the identity of the sender.  And there is possibility that the recipient will take offense and blame the entire group.  But used wisely, they can be a tool for continuous improvement and thoughtful change.

As for me, the most challenging feedback so far has been the suggestion to yield to my spouse's wish for a dog. While it may seem minor, it speaks to the broader principle of being open to change and advice, even in the most personal aspects of our lives. By resending the email to my friends every few years I can emphasize that the door to improvement is always open.

I have colleagues who cling to their tenure to the detriment of their institutions and their own legacies.  By creating a way for trusted friends to show me the error of my ways, I hope to avoid this and other missteps.  For me, it’s a way of committing to being mentored. 

In the end, embracing such feedback mechanisms can lead to better decisions, a more thoughtful approach to transitions like retirement, and perhaps, a new canine companion.

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