01 Sep 2013
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Faculty Q&A: Staying the Course

Why is it so hard to do?
by Julia Hanna

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by Julia Hanna

Most of us know little about the functioning of our internal organs, such as our hearts and our kidneys," says HBS associate professor Francesca Gino. "By contrast, we believe we understand exactly how our minds work. Even after our decisions lead to disappointing outcomes, we do not investigate what went wrong and try to find out how we might improve our thinking." In Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press), Gino explores how what we want gets disconnected from what we do—and offers nine principles to help achieve our goals.

Was there a particular moment or event that set you on this line of research?

Many of the ideas I study and write about are motivated by my personal experience and by what surrounds me—interesting patterns of behavior that often, at first glance, make little sense. An example that motivated Sidetracked is the case of a company I studied and wrote about in early 2000: Ducati Corse, an Italian racing team that decided to compete in the MotoGP [the premier championship of motorcycle road racing] for the first time in 2003. Team members approached their first season as a learning exercise: Their goal was not to win but to gain as much knowledge as possible about the race for future years. The team's racing bikes were fitted with sensors to capture performance data, and Ducati Corse engineers held debriefings with the riders after each race to gather feedback on the bike's handling.

During the 2003 MotoGP season, however, the team experienced unexpected success, finishing among the top three in nine races and second overall for the season. Instead of learning from the data they were gathering, team members celebrated. The success also increased the engineers' confidence in their ability to design high-performing racing bikes. As a result, Ducati decided to radically redesign its bike for the MotoGP 2004 season, adding more than 60 percent of new components. But the new racing bike did not perform as well as expected. As the team members themselves recognized, their confidence sidetracked them from their goal.

You write about our tendency to overestimate our intelligence and abilities. In a survey you cite, for example, respondents gave themselves a higher likelihood of getting into heaven than Mother Teresa. How do we draw the line between being self-confident and overly biased?

The Mother Teresa example highlights a common tendency that profoundly influences our thinking and behavior: Most of us have overly positive views of who we are and what we can accomplish. When I discuss this tendency in talks or in the classroom, I often use an image of a cat looking in the mirror and seeing a lion. My main message here is not to start being pessimistic about our abilities. But we need to realize that this is what we tend to do, and we must acknowledge that when it comes to making decisions we need to evaluate ourselves more honestly and accurately. By raising our awareness, we can keep our self-views in check and recognize when they may be taking us off track.

Can you think of a circumstance when you found yourself getting sidetracked, realized it, and recovered?

My husband and I were recently in the process of negotiating the purchase of a house. In the midst of negotiations, we started thinking that the seller was being particularly difficult. She made us angry, to the point that we started deviating from our initial plan, which identified what we cared about, how we would negotiate, and when we would walk away. The funny part of this example is that my husband was the one who reminded me to apply one of the principles I had identified in my research: take your emotional temperature. In general, when we face important decisions, a self-check can reveal whether emotions are unduly influencing our judgment. If they are, we may consider cooling off. This is exactly what we did, thanks to my husband, and we got the house.

Some of your research is particularly relevant when it comes to decisions about hiring. Can you offer some tactics to help ensure that managers hire the best person for the job?

When making judgments about whom to hire, context is crucial. It's impor-tant to know the situation that potential candidates worked in, and the methods they used, before judging their performance. Would you have more confidence in hiring a senior executive who was among those leading a company in a growing field or a troubled industry? Would you be less interested in hiring a top performer if you learned he or she used shady tactics to reach sales targets in a previous job? Unfortunately, we usually don't pay enough attention to how situational factors may influence performance. And we pay too much attention to outcomes compared with processes used to reach those outcomes.

Organizations may need to make structural changes to their hiring decisions. They might, for instance, reduce the effect of biases by including an assessment of the means used to achieve given objectives and the situational influences on performance.

You write about how getting sidetracked can have a negative impact on ethical decisions. Are there any strategies that organizations can use to help keep their employees on the straight and narrow?

My colleagues and I conducted a study a few years ago in collaboration with a major US car insurance company. We sent 13,488 of the company's customers a form that asked them to report the number of miles they had driven the prior year. Cheating, by underreporting mileage, would come with the financial benefit of lower insurance premiums. On about half of the forms sent out, customers signed to indicate their truthfulness at the bottom of the form. The other forms asked customers to sign at the top of the form. The average mileage reported by customers who signed the form at the top was more than 2,400 miles higher than that reported by customers who signed at the bottom of the form. Our follow-up research demonstrated that signing at the top of the form (before reporting information that could be misreported) increased the salience of ethical standards by highlighting people's self-identity and improving their ethical behavior. This research hints at how simply nudging people toward more ethical behavior can have important implications for organizations, which commonly bear substantial costs from dishonesty.

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