Why Going Left Is Not Always Right
Most of us think carefully about what we need to do, make intricate plans and then, somehow, in the implementation of those plans, ignore our internal road map and veer a different way. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino explains in her book Sidetracked: "The decisions that we expect we will make based on our finely developed plans are often different from how we actually behave. We get sidetracked." Whether it’s a plan to save for retirement or setting a new direction for the management team, Gino writes, most of us inevitably make choices that take us away from our goals. In this clearly written, detailed book, Gino explains why this happens and what we can do about it.
According to Gino, three types of forces impact our behavior and influence our decisions in unexpected ways, leading us inexorably away from our goals. These three categories of forces are:
1. Forces from within ourselves.
2. Forces from our relationships with others.
3. Forces from the outside world.
In Sidetracked, Gino specifies these various forces and offers a set of principles that will offset these forces and keep us on track.
The Forces From Within Us
The first section of the book examines the forces from within ourselves that cause us to veer from our plans and our goals.
First, she writes, we tend to have mistaken beliefs about our abilities and competencies. In short, we believe we are much smarter and more competent that we really are. We think, for example, that we are better drivers than just about anybody else on the road. As a result of this mistaken self-confidence, we don’t listen to good advice that would help us achieve our goals. Walmart, for example, continuously ignored warnings from its German managers that the retailer could not run its German stores in the same manner that it ran the U.S. stores. The first principle for avoiding getting sidetracked, writes Gino, is to raise your awareness about biased self-views and overconfidence.
The second detracting force within us, writes Gino, comes from our emotions. If a traffic jam makes us late for a meeting, we transfer that emotion to the meeting — perhaps dealing less effectively with a customer than we might have on another day. Principle two, according to Gino, is to take your emotional temperature.
People also tend to have a narrow focus when making decisions. Gino thus offers a third principle, which is to "zoom out" — to take the time to widen the focus when considering information and bring more information to the table before making a decision.
No More Oscars for Tom
Sidetracked also describes the forces that come from our relationships with others, as well as those that come from the outside. For example, Tom Hanks, according to Gino, is not likely to receive another Oscar. The Academy Awards are chosen by his peers in the profession, and because of what social scientists call the "social comparison bias," fellow actors are not going to reward an actor who won back-to-back Oscars.
The social comparison theory states that people measure their self-worth in any domain based on comparison with others. The bias results from people trying to prevent others from outperforming them. Thus, a manager may be trying to hire the best team around him; if his particular strength is creativity, however, he is less likely to hire another person who might be more creative, even if creativity is particularly needed in the organization.
The other two forces from our relationships with others include the inability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and letting the fact that we share even superficial features with others (for example, first name) influence our decisions. Three forces from the outside world — irrelevant information, subtle differences in the way a question is framed and the structure of our environment — also cause us to veer off track.
All of these forces that derail us are examined in detail through numerous academic studies and research experiments. The result is a book that is both a fascinating exploration into the human psyche and a practical guide for, finally, staying on track.