Closing the Door… on Closure

Guest post from Julie Winkle Giulioni:

Poll ten highly successful people and you’ll likely find that nine have a very high need for closure. You know that you’re among them if you:

• Feel most comfortable when a meeting ends with a good recap and solid next steps.

• Get an unusual sense of satisfaction out of crossing things off your to-do list.

• Consistently are the one who can tell others where they left off with a story (primarily because you really need to know how it ended).

• Sit in the car a moment longer to hear the end of the song.

While there’s a narrow, psychological definition of ‘closure’, what I’m talking about here is the more pedestrian, run-of-the-mill need to replace ambiguity with clarity, confusion with order, uncertainty with firm answers, and what’s unfinished with completion.

Despite the strong need that many have for closure, some classic research suggests that leaving things a bit open may actually offer unexpected benefits. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik published research suggesting that humans remember better what’s incomplete. The upside of the discomfort we feel when faced with uncertainty or ambiguity is that it keeps the mind working, focusing, and trying to create an ending, answer, or resolution.

This Zeigarnik Effect is a powerful dynamic… one that individuals, leaders, and organizations fail to use to its full advantage. Imagine what we could accomplish if we tapped the mind’s ‘unfinished business’…

Students might learn and retain more by interrupting their studying and taking a break. (Studies show that studies who take such a break remember material better than those who don’t; Zeigarnik, 1927; McKinney 1935.)

Employees might welcome interruptions and consciously leverage the tension produced toward better results.

Leaders might feel a lot less pressure about having to wrap things up with a tidy bow. They might ask the hard questions that employees can’t answer on the spot, confident that their minds will continue to work the topics over.

Organizations might generate better solutions and capitalize on this motivation toward closure by putting business problems and opportunities out to others and letting them sit and percolate for a while rather than forcing an immediate (and sometimes sub-optimal) solution.

‘Unfinished business’ shouldn’t have a negative connotation… not when Dr. Zeigarnik describes that this ‘dynamic state of tension makes opportunities’.

So, what opportunities do you have to stop closing the loop? What could you accomplish if you just let your mind… (intentionally left incomplete!)

About the author:

Julie Winkle Giulioni celebrates the September 18 launch of her book with Beverly Kaye, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want. Julie has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about Julie’s consulting, speaking, and blog at