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Combating Everyday Distractions

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What prompted you to write this book? Already, there are several books on decision making available in the market?
Many of the ideas I study and write about are motivated by my personal experience and by what surround me - interesting patterns of behaviour that often, at first glance, make little sense. Sidetracked focuses on situations where we set out to accomplish specific goals but ended up reaching different outcomes - outcomes we often regret. Think of a time when you had a clear plan of action - a new career path, a diet you intended to follow, an exciting regular workout plan, a new saving plan for retirement, a new hire in your team, or a new car you were planning to buy after much research and deliberation. What happened when it came time to make decisions in pursuit of your goal? You may have found yourself following a course of action that took you completely off track. I certainly found myself in this type of situations many times in the past. I discovered that many friends and colleagues too shared similar experiences.

In Sidetracked, I explain how even simple and seemingly irrelevant factors have profound consequences on our decisions and behaviour. Most of us care a good deal about being consistent - we care about following through on our goals and wishes. And we also aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, and honest individuals. But often, without our knowledge, subtle influences-often unexpected-steer us away, and our decisions fail to align with our best intentions.

I wrote this book to discuss the main set of forces that prevent us from following through on our plans, and to identify a set of principles we can apply to stay on track going forward. My book describes theses forces, using examples and case studies from personal and professional domains, along with research that I conducted with colleagues over the past 10 years.

Through the research discussed in my book, my hope is to challenge readers to better understand what affects their choices and to be more mindful and prepared for the many important decisions they will face, from motivating their team to change direction to understanding why organisational members behave unethically. My book also offers the tools we all need to decode the sometimes mysterious, hurtful, or unwise decisions our peers, co-workers, and colleagues make. Being human makes all of us vulnerable to influences that, even when subtle, can dramatically impact our actions.

 
Sidetracked Francesca Gino; Harvard Business Review Press Pages 272; Rs 995
What makes such an approach different?
For decades, behavioural decision researchers have been studying the systematic mistakes individuals make under certain circumstances. Since the pioneering work of Jim March and Herbert Simon in the 1950s, and of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s, scholars have provided mounting evidence that as human beings we are "boundedly rational." That is, our ability to seek and process information is restricted and often contradicts the assumptions on which standard economic theory is based. In the last few years, wonderful books have been written on this topic.

The research discussed in my book starts by asking a different question than that asked by previous popular books on decision making. These books have focused on the systematic errors people make when seeking and processing information and have examined the ways in which people deviate from rationality. By contrast, I question the fundamental ability of people to make decisions that are consistent with their intentions of being ethical, competent, and effective. My central question is: Why is it that what we accomplish is often not what we set out to do? By addressing this question, the book brings an innovative dimension to the study of decision making. Not only does it identify the psychological drivers that influence how we operate as individuals, but it also explores the ways in which our choices affect other people and the organizations to which we belong. Thus, the book provides a unique perspective by homing in on under-examined, subtle influences that derail our decisions. Importantly, my book also offers a clear set of guidelines for keeping decisions on track. Too often, behavioural decision scholars point to individuals' irrationalities without suggesting ways to fix or counteract them. My book addresses this by identifying and discussing concrete solutions to people's systematic shortcomings.

What according to your research are the causes of distractions?
I identify three sets of: from within, from relationships and from the outside world. Forces from within include factors that reside in people's minds and hearts. Examples include people's inaccurate and overly positive beliefs about their abilities and competence, the emotions caused by events unrelated to the decision at hand, and an overly narrow focus when evaluating information to inform their decisions. Forces from relationships refer to factors that characterise ties and interactions with others. People are social human beings, and relationships are beneficial to their wellbeing. Yet, bonds with others often derail their decisions due to various factors, such as the difficulty of taking the perspective of others, the similarities people share with others, and the comparisons they make between others and themselves. Finally, forces from the outside world refer to situational factors that sidetrack people's decisions. They include irrelevant information, subtle differences in the way decisions are framed, and the structure of the context in which people operate.

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So, how to overcome them?
I identified nine principles that can help us stay on track. They are:
1. Raise your awareness. Because our views of how capable and competent we are as individuals are often overly positive, we rely too much on our own information. By raising your awareness, you can keep your self-views in check and recognize when they may be taking you off track. Becoming more aware of the information that enters our thinking as we consider different courses of action, and of how much of it we end up using, is an important step toward making sure that our own opinions receive the appropriate weight in our decisions.

2. Take your emotional temperature. Although there are many situations in which our feelings about a decision we are facing tell us something about the decision itself, there are also many situations where irrelevant emotions-those caused by an event completely unrelated to the decision at hand-take us off track. They can lead to inaccurate analyses of the information. By taking your emotional temperature before making a decision, you can reflect on the causes of your current feelings and determine whether they were triggered by an event unrelated to the decision at hand, and you can examine whether irrelevant emotions are clouding your judgement.

3. Zoom out. We often focus too narrowly on the decision at hand and our own views about it. As a result, we fail to see the bigger picture, including other people's roles. Zooming out involves widening our focus when considering information to include in our decision-making processes so that we don't miss important details. By zooming out, you can include more relevant information in your decision-making process so that you can avoid decision derailment.

4. Take the other party's point of view. There is always another side to a story: the other person's viewpoint. Failing to recognize the potential for a different perspective can prevent us from sticking to the plan. By actively and intentionally taking the other side's point of view, you can analyse the decision you face from others' perspective.

5. Question your bonds. As social beings, we easily form connections with others based on subtle factors, such as sharing the same birthday. These connections may expand our networks and be beneficial in several ways, but they can also derail our decisions. By questioning your bonds, you can carefully reflect on your ties and similarities to those around you and consider whether these bonds are affecting your choices for the worse.

6. Check your reference points. The people around us provide natural reference points to help us understand where we stand across a variety of dimensions, from attractiveness to performance. How we measure up in these comparisons matters and can easily result in derailment. By checking your reference points, you can uncover the real motives behind your decisions and readjust accordingly.

7. Consider the source. This principle highlights the value of carefully considering the source of information we would like to use to make decisions. We may not realise that the information is not relevant for the decision at hand. For instance, we look at the effort others put into their decisions to evaluate the quality of those decisions. We examine the outcomes of decisions to evaluate their quality. And we also discount how situational factors led to a given outcome. These biases cause us to judge others inaccurately. By considering your sources, you can carefully examine the information surrounding your decisions and evaluate whether you should rely on it or not.

8. Investigate and question the frame. The same information can be framed in different ways. For instance, we can view the same glass as half empty or half full. Simple changes in framing can have large effects on our motivation to act, as well as on the motivation of others. By investigating the frame, you can ask questions about the way tasks, rewards, and choices are structured and learn how to avoid decisions derailed.

9. Make your standards shine. Our plans commonly reflect our desire to be moral individuals and to listen to our moral compass. Yet, from the amount of lighting in a room to the amount of resources at our disposal, subtle forces can send us off course. By making your standards shine, you can remind yourself of the importance of keeping your standards salient and become more likely to stick with them.
 
What's the key to making better decisions? Because For, most of the factors that influence decision making in general and business decisions in particular are of uncertain and unpredictable nature.
The key is to recognize that we are human: we tend to believe our thinking and actions are most often changed by significant events and well-rounded arguments. In fact, subtle factors, such as the way in which a choice is presented, or the emotions experienced when facing an event unrelated to the current decision, can have significant consequences on our behaviour.

Can you cite a few examples of great, focussed decision making from the global businesses?
One example is from a field research I conducted with Samasource. Founded in September of 2008, Samasource is a non-profit that secures contracts for digital services from large companies in the US and Europe, divides the work up into small pieces (called microwork) and then sends it to delivery centres in developing regions of the world for completion through a web-based interface. This is a very good example of focused decision making for two main reasons. First, many organisations start with a mission but then make operations strategy decisions that are difficult to scale or that are not in line with the company's goals. This was not the case for Samasource: the company was able to avoid being overly narrow-focused by always evaluating its decisions in relation to the company mission. Second, many organisations fail to consider how a certain decision will create pressure for their business, in a way that may lead the management to compromise on its goals. This was not the case for Samasource. When considering the various possibilities for growth (for example, changing the business model to a for-profit), the management thought through the consequences of each decision carefully to try to understand whether the option under consideration would lead to pressures to revise the mission. For instance, when considering whether to change the business model to a for-profit, the management spent time thinking how traditional investors would be interested in efficiency as their primary concerns when instead Samasource was mainly focused on developing workers below the poverty line. These two objectives could come into conflict and being a for-profit would pressure Samasource to change its focus.
 
You are an academician and apart from decision making, you also teach negotiation. What are the few key point's dealmakers and people in similar roles keep in mind while they are at the negotiation table?
The forces that sidetrack us as we implement our plans intervene also in negotiation settings. For instance, our own thoughts and feelings can be sufficient to derail our negotiations. Consider the funny scene from Albert Brooks' 1991 movie Defending Your Life. The film centres on Brooks' character, Daniel Miller, who dies and arrives in the afterlife, where he is required to justify his passive approach to life. In a flashback scene, Miller asks his wife to help him prepare to negotiate for a higher salary. Miller believes (and many negotiation experts would agree) that role-playing the negotiation ahead of time will increase his confidence and assertiveness. Throughout the practice session, Miller stands firm as his wife, acting as his boss, delivers a series of offers. When he refuses to accept less than $65,000, his wife backs down and makes some increasingly appealing offers. The next scene shows Miller's negotiation with his boss as it unfolded the next day. The boss delivers an opening offer of $49,000. Miller's response, before the boss even finishes his sentence? "I'll take it." Once he was face-to-face with his boss, anxiety overwhelmed Miller and derailed his plan to negotiate assertively. Ample research supports this fictional anecdote: the emotions we experience while engaged in tasks such as negotiation often thwart us from following through on our plans.

Recognising that simple forces can derail our decisions at the negotiation table as well as the decisions of our counterpart is important. It'll lead us to better prepare for upcoming negotiations.

You have written a lot about dishonesty in business. In the past few years, several dishonest practises were reported from businesses across the globe. There is a common perception that in business being honest means compromising your balance sheet. Is it not possible at all to be honest, ethical and truthful and create wealth?
I believe it is very possible to be honest and to be profitable as a business. And the empirical evidence that several scholars have collected seem to agree with me on this point.

You wrote: 'If Hamlet were to revisit his words today, he might conclude that, like computer software, the human mind also has bugs." Suggest us a few simple ways in which these bugs can be fixed, especially in business and governance.
Using the type of focused decision making the Founder and CEO of Samasource uses is a wonderful example of how we can fix our bugs. More generally, by recognizing the limitations in the way we make decisions and correcting for them, we can be more successful in both our personal and professional lives. Through this approach, managers and organizations can adopt practices that lead to more successful outcomes. For example, after recognizing that patients often have difficultly remembering to take their medicine regularly, the startup GlowCaps designed a pill bottle with a special cap that sends reminders using wireless signals. And at Bridgestone Tire, company management wanted employees rely on data rather than their potentially biased intuitions when addressing product flaws. So managers taught employees to use two Japanese terms (which are key principles of the Toyota Production System) that served as salient reminders of the importance of investigating the actual product, or "genbutsu," in the actual place - "genba" - where a problem emerged.

To take another example, my colleagues and I recently conducted a field study of Indian workers at a call centre. The managers believed that, to train happy and productive workers, the orientation process should focus on stressing why new employees should be proud to join the organisation. But in our research, we tested the senior management's intuition and uncovered a much more effective approach: giving new employees the opportunity to think about their personal strengths and how they could apply them to their jobs. Workers who were encouraged to do so were more satisfied with their jobs, more productive, and also more likely to stay with the organization than were those who received more traditional, organisation-centred training. In Sidetracked, I discuss many other examples of simple ways in which our bugs can be fixed, in both business and governance.

What's your energy drink?
The special latte my wonderful husband makes me every morning.

What are you reading now?
I am reading Simpler: The Future of Government, an interesting new book by Cass Sunstein. And I am also in the middle of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

What's your next book going to be on?

As I mentioned, I truly enjoyed writing Sidetracked. So, I started playing around with a few ideas on my next book but I have not settled on one yet.
 
businessworldbooks (at) gmail (dot) com; jinoy(dot)p(at)abp(dot)in