The goal was unambiguous –and yet, it somehow didn’t get done. It’s a universal problem, and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino’s new book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan offers solutions to help us keep focused on making good decisions that lead us toward our objectives. “There’s often a clear goal and a clear path of action, yet somehow we reach outcomes that have nothing to do with what we intended to do,” she says. “Something gets in the way. We’re human beings, and we make systematic errors and it affects our decisions.”
There are three major roadblocks to making good decisions, says Gino. The first, she says, is “forces from within,” which includes emotions (telling off your boss when you’re actually just wound up from being stuck in traffic) and our human bias to overestimate our own competence and skills. “It’s like a cat looking in the mirror and seeing a lion. There are so many benefits to seeing a lion [in terms of confidence and self-esteem], but we have to be aware of the consequences. In terms of interactions, we think so highly of our own opinions, we don’t listen to others.”
The second hangup, says Gino, arises from our relationship with others. “We’re social beings,” she says. “It’s amazing how powerful the behavior of others can be on our own decisions.” Studies have shown that just seeing a person similar to you engage in an unethical act makes you more likely do so. Envy can also be a powerful driver, leading some to hinder the overall progress of their organization just to spite a rival.
Finally, she says, “factors from the outside world” might confuse our decisionmaking, especially humans’ notable bias to underestimate the power of context and circumstances. We might praise and promote a salesperson with great numbers, without fully understanding that his great performance was due to being assigned an easy territory, whereas a more talented colleague with a harder assignment might go unrecognized.
In order to overcome these errors in thinking, Gino says we need to get in the habit of “asking ourselves questions in the moment of decision. You have to take your emotional temperature.” If you’re negotiating an agreement and feel yourself getting angry or anxious, take a break or postpone the discussion until you’re back in a rational state. She also advises “trying to remember what your initial plan was, rather than choosing based on what others seem to be doing.” It’s easy to be swayed by peers with lucrative job offers, but if your original plan was to do relief work in Africa, you need to think carefully about whether new information has altered your thinking (you discovered a true passion for investment banking) or whether your head is getting turned by social pressure.
It’s easy to see others’ mistakes, says Gino. “We can look at others and see they’re clearly biased or affected by emotion. But it’s harder to say, ‘I’m a human being and I’m affected by the same forces.’ But having that awareness can be the difference in whether you’re an effective decision maker.”
The best leaders, she says, “are more aware of what might come in the way, and they’re better able to prepare, to think ahead. If an issue comes up, they would have already thought through how to deal with it and how to counteract it.”
What strategies have you used to make better decisions? What have you seen work for others?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 1, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.