How to not get sidetracked

Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School professor and author of 'Sidetracked', on sticking to plans to achieve goals

Neelima Mahajan
Updated1 Dec 2015, 02:52 AM IST
Gino says that one thing that would be very important for any employer to consider is in what ways they can allow for more flexibility and control in people&#8217;s jobs.<br />
Gino says that one thing that would be very important for any employer to consider is in what ways they can allow for more flexibility and control in people&#8217;s jobs.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle that stands between you and your goal is you and your wayward mind. You often start something new, but end up not finishing it. Think of the number of times you took a gym membership. Or vowed to eat healthy. Or decided on a career choice. What happened?

Why do we deviate from our well-thought-out goals? Francesca Gino, a behavioural scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, faced it herself: she started off intending to be an engineer. Since her then boyfriend was studying to become an engineer and his mother thought that having two engineers in the family wasn’t such a good idea, she ended up studying economics instead.

Fascinated with this problem, Gino researched it. She found the psychological drivers behind one’s inability to stick to a plan of action, and also ways to combat them. The result is Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, a book that pushed Gino into the big league. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why do most of us, however rational we think we are, end up making poor decisions?

Based on the research that I conducted in the last 15 years, I discovered three sets of forces that derail our decisions. The first is the force from within, and it is due to the fact that we are humans, and we come with emotions and we have biased judgements. The second set is forces from our relationships and these are forces to do with the very fact that not only are we human beings, but we are (also) social human beings and our relationships with others can actually get in the way of decision-making.

And finally there is a set of forces that I call forces from the outside world: the context in which we make decisions influence the way we decide and in particular, the context can provide pressures or other factors can come in to make us irrational.

What are the psychological drivers that influence the choices we make? What roles specifically do mental shortcuts or biases play?

Mental shortcuts can be helpful in some situations, but most of the time we rely too much on these shortcuts and on our emotions, and as a result, we don’t give the chance to our mental processes to use more deliberation and so we make poor decisions.

There is some beautiful work by Daniel Kahneman who looks at the types of processes we use when we make decisions. When we process information, there are two systems in our brain, which is a little bit of an oversimplification, but it’s actually quite helpful to think about it in those terms. System 1 is automatic, emotional, intuitive. System 2 is logical, it requires deliberation. What tends to happen with decisions is we like to latch on to System 1 and so we make all sorts of errors that lead to poor decisions. What we should be doing instead is engage System 2, and make sure there is more deliberation before we make our decision.

How does our self-image get in the way of decision-making?

We come to inflate our self-views. In class, I ask people to weigh themselves on a bunch of dimensions, such as their ability to make decisions, their ability to interact with others, and what I see regularly is that most people tend to think they’re better than average. This exercise shows that we have inflated self-views. We have very positive—too positive—views of who we are as individuals and what we can accomplish, and the problem is that this will lead us to overconfidence that makes us focus too much on our own perspective of information and disregard what others can bring to the table. And this is problematic because this makes us reluctant to listen to the advice and opinions of others, when in fact, listening to them would lead to better decision-making.

What about people with negative self-images?

There are people who are less confident than others, but in general, when you ask people to rank themselves against others on a bunch of dimensions such as honesty, decision-making, their ability to negotiate, ability to get along well with other people, they actually think of themselves as better than others, so we tend to have a positive self-view.

Are certain types of people more likely to get sidetracked?

It’s a question that I get a lot, and there are certainly individual differences that matter. However, all the tendencies that I talk about in the book are tendencies that we all show. It’s just a matter of how much of a push this factor needs to give us before we get off-track. So it affects all of us for the very fact that we are human beings.

How can we guard against our blind spots that derail us?

At a high level, we can do a couple of things. One is being aware that these different forces come in easily and derail our decisions, and have the ability to recognize that biases not only affect the choices of others, but also our own choices. And second, having a checklist of questions that we can ask ourselves when we make decisions to be sure that we are not getting off-track. For instance, one of them is taking our emotional temperature: making sure that we are in the right emotional state to make decisions rather than feeling too anxious, or too angry, etc. Be more thoughtful about engaging System 2 when we make decisions.

One of the things you talk about is zooming out in order to make good decisions.

Research shows how easy it is for us to be narrowly focused in the sense that we just think about our side of the story or constraints that affect us, and we have a hard time taking a step back and looking at the problem from a broader perspective. So for instance, realize that constraints that affect us also affect the people who are working with us. One solution is zooming out: the ability to take problems and not get stuck in the details, but being able to take a step back and being able to look at the decision from a broader (perspective).

Let’s shift gears to your work on getting employees to think and not just do. What implications does that have for job design?

One thing that would be very important for any employer to consider is in what ways they can allow for more flexibility and control in people’s jobs. And maybe the job doesn’t need to get redesigned, but what employees ask right from the start of the employment relationship is different.

Some of the work that we’ve done shows that if right at the beginning of the employment relationship, people come into the organization and get rewarded, if the company gives people space to think about their uniqueness and their strengths, how they could apply them to their jobs, people feel a greater sense of control and the potential to expand their strengths. They’re happier on the job, they’ll be more productive, more likely to stay with the organization. So, people from the start have a greater opportunity to express who they are.

Similarly, in the cases we’ve done where we give people the opportunity and time to think at the end of each day; we didn’t quite change the job, but we created room for people to have the opportunity to spend some time thinking rather than doing.

When you look at companies that do this well as opposed to companies that don’t, is this a defining factor?

We have looked at companies that give people more time to think. Some companies, especially in the tech industry, are actually giving people some time off work so that they can work on their own projects and they’ve shown that this can lead to some innovation that is actually beneficial to you, beneficial in itself. Rather than changing the job, the job design, they change how the work is organized or designed so that there is a little bit more flexibility that comes into it.

Or some companies allow employees to choose when to work or how to allocate their time to different activities.

Some organizations are very conscious of the fact that people need time to recharge, so they build in breaks that the people can take throughout the day. Those are ways in which I think the employers are being a little bit more thoughtful in how to structure the work such that you get the benefits of people being engaged and productive.

How should leaders evaluate their own behaviour so that it doesn’t come in the way of employees thinking freely?

I think what they ask for is a different level of awareness and willingness from the side of leaders, of asking themselves really tough questions: “Am I creating the right circumstances or right context for people to be engaged and succeed?” I think that a lot of leaders have a chance to talk to the organizations, but are pressed (for) time, and the first thing that goes when people have long lists of things to do, is the time to think about how to best develop others, motivate them, and dedicate time to ensure that you are giving them the right conditions to succeed. A little bit of time to think and make sure that they are providing the right context for people to succeed will be good on the part of leaders.

One company that comes to mind is Egon Zehnder. They are working really hard in terms of thinking about how to best assess their people and help them in their development. A few years back, they introduced a new model to assess and develop people called the Potential Model. They moved away from the idea of thinking of people’s competencies, and rather assess their potential. Even if there is a gap in people’s experience, as long as they have the potential, which is a mind-set towards learning, being curious, being persistent, then they can make up for that gap. It is particularly thoughtful in the way they think about assessing their people, creating the right circumstances for them to be engaged and to succeed, and making sure that everybody is on track.

Read an unabridged version on, printed in an exclusive partnership with CKGSB Knowledge.

Neelima Mahajan is a journalist based out of Beijing.

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First Published:1 Dec 2015, 02:52 AM IST
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