She has long studied the factors at play when decision making collides with real life choices, and I’ve been fascinated with her work ever since this July when we were both featured in the HBR article: The Condensed Guide to Running Meetings.
I am honored that she agreed to do this Q&A and I can’t wait for you all to read what she has to say on multitasking, social influence and how we judge other’s behavior. Put simply, she gives us a context to view the common question: Why do people do what they do?
Paul: Francesca, before we get to more difficult questions, I’d love to hear your views on some of the current things I’ve been asked about by people in my classes. First, what do you think about multitasking?
Francesca: Many of us believe we can multitask – finishing an email while reading through our Twitter feed and listening to a conference call. This belief in our ability to multitask may be innate. In fact, decades of psychology research show that we have overly positive self-views on a wide range of dimensions, including our ability to make good decisions, our sense of competence on various tasks, and our friendliness and trustworthiness.
But though most of us believe we can multitask effectively, recent research shows we can’t. Multitasking is a myth! It is a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously. We can do simple tasks like walking and talking at the same time, but the brain can’t handle multitasking. Quite ironically, the people who most frequently tend to multitask are those who are the least able of doing so effectively. Specifically, the research finds that the more time people spend using multiple forms of media simultaneously, the least likely they are to perform well on a standardized test of multitasking abilities.
Here is some more evidence. Studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes up to 50 percent more mistakes! Therefore, a person working sequentially is 50 percent faster and up to 50 percent more accurate.
Paul: In a similar vein, what have you learned about the impact of devices on the people around us? I personally see it as rude, but perhaps I’m old-fashioned.
Francesca: Recently, I conducted a simple survey asking over 400 people to read a hypothetical scenario and answer a few questions about it. I asked them to imagine they were in a meeting with either a friend or a colleague. Some of the respondents were then told that, at some point during the meeting, this person reached down to his phone to check his email, post a status on Facebook, or write a Tweet. Other respondents were told that they were ones using a social media tool during a meeting. I asked respondents in both scenarios to indicate how distracting and socially inappropriate the action was. Interestingly, they found the same action to be much more problematic if their friend or colleague engaged in it, but did not find it to be very problematic when they were the ones who were (arguably) being rude. The results suggest that we feel distracted and annoyed when others are checking their phones rather than paying attention to what we have to say in a meeting. Yet we fail to realize that our actions will have the same effect on others when we are the ones engaging in them.
Paul: As you know, I’m an advocate of calling on people in meetings. What is your take on this aspect of leading meetings?
Francesca: Whether your approach can lead to good discussions and outcomes may depend on the type of people at the meeting. In a culture where the typical meeting resembles a competition for loudest-and-most-talkative, introverts often feel they have to adjust who they are to “pass.”
How can you get the best from deep, quiet team members during meetings? A look at practices used in some organizations points to an answer. At Amazon, for instance, every meeting begins in total silence. Before any conversation can occur, everyone must quietly read a six-page memo about the meeting’s agenda for 20 to 30 minutes. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos instituted this process after recognizing that employees rarely read meeting materials sent in advance. Reading together focuses everyone’s attention on the issues at hand. The real magic happens before the meeting ever starts, when the author is writing one of these six-page memos, which are called “narratives.” The memos must tell a story—they have a conflict to resolve and should conclude with solutions, innovation, and happy customers—a structure that provides the meeting with direction. Writing forces memo authors to reason through what they want to present, spend time puzzling through tough questions, and formulate clear, if not persuasive, arguments. It’s no surprise that Bezos also banned PowerPoint presentations in meetings, thus doing away with simplistic and fuzzy bullet-point logic.
The type of clear thinking that these structured memos require also serves the purpose of leveling the playing field for team members who differ in their level of introversion and extroversion. The imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into effective meetings and participative decision making. After devoting time to reading, the group can then focus on engaging in a valuable discourse: reaching shared understandings, digging deeper into data and insights, and perhaps most importantly, having a meaningful debate. The process gives introverted team members the time they need to formulate their thoughts and, for some, build up the courage to share them with the rest of the team. It also encourages the extroverted to listen, reflect, and become more open to the perspectives of their more silent peers.
Paul: In a recent HBR article you mentioned that people have a limited amount of executive resources. That is a new term for me. Can you tell us about this?
Francesca: The human mind is quite remarkable, but it is not without limits. Research in psychology has pointed to a particular mental limitation: our ability to use a mental trait known as executive function. When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choose to eat a healthy snack instead of a piece of chocolate, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes in these two situations require conscious effort: you have to resist the temptation to let your mind wander or to indulge in the sweet dessert. It turns out, however, that use of executive function draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity can be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity.
Paul: You have done extensive work in the area of social influence. Influence is a critical skill within the work of teams and leadership. What do people need to be aware regarding social influence?
Francesca: Maybe this is too self-serving, but I would ask them to read this recent blog post I wrote on this topic here.
Paul: In your book, Sidetracked, you talk about how lacking a clear plan of action is often why groups get derailed in decision making. Please say more about this.
Francesca: 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. Sidetracked focuses on situations where we set out to accomplish specific goals but end 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 situation many times in the past. And when talking to friends and colleagues, I discovered that they shared similar experiences where they got sidetracked as they were implementing their well-thought-out plans.
In Sidetracked, I explain how even simple and seemingly irrelevant factors have profound consequences on our decisions and behavior, diverting us from our original plans. 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 from what we initially planned or wanted. As a result, our decisions fail to align with our best intentions.
I wrote Sidetracked 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. The book describes theses forces using examples and case studies from personal and professional domains, as well as research that I conducted with amazing colleagues over the last ten years.
Paul: You make the point that when we evaluate or judge the behavior of others, we often assume their actions reflect their personalities. Being aware of this tendency would seem to point us toward being less quick to judge people by their actions. Is that the right way to interpret your work?
Francesca: Yes. When we interpret the behavior of others, we tend to attribute it to their character or competence, rather than considering the impact that situational factors may have had on it. (Note that we tend to do just the opposite when we evaluate our own actions, as the earlier example highlights.) Too often, we give little thought to whether the person whose behavior we are trying to make sense of was in a situation that influenced what they did. This common tendency, which psychologists call the correspondence bias, influences not only how we interpret the behavior of others but also how we evaluate them. Thus, decisions as important as hiring and promoting may be biased in favor of people who are less deserving than others.
In research I conducted in collaboration with Don Moore, Sam Swift, and Zachariah Sharek, we asked admissions officers from a top MBA program to evaluate potential applicants to admit to the program. We gave them information about applicants’ performance (their grade point average) as well as the average GPA of the particular college each had attended. When deciding whom to admit, the admissions officers over-weighted applicants’ nominal GPAs and under-weighted the effect of the grading norms at the schools the applicants attended. Despite their expertise in making admission decisions, the admission officers did not appropriately take into account the ease with which applicants earned their grades. In general, when making these types of important evaluations, we commonly fail to adjust for the difficulty of achieving high levels of performance.
Similarly, because of this bias, managers may be more likely to promote a salesperson who is performing at high levels in a region with a lot of demand rather than another who is performing at lower levels in a troubled region. And a senior IT leader may have more confidence in a new software engineer who seems to efficiently write code in an easy-to-learn programming language rather than one who is less efficient in a more complex language.
Given the pervasiveness of the correspondence bias in our decisions, how can we overcome it? We can do so by regularly applying a principle I discussed in my book that I call consider the source. There is a lot of value in carefully considering the information that enters our decision-making processes and that may bias how we evaluate our own actions and those of others. When making inferences about others, this principle leads us to ask important questions such as whether it is possible that situational factors are affecting the behavior or performance of the person we are evaluating and what such factors may be. The gut feeling you have about a person’s competence or skills may simply be an outcome of the correspondence bias. Being aware of this tendency and using the consider-the-source principle will likely make you a fairer and more accurate judge of others.
Paul: I realize this is a very broad question, but what is it that would be useful for people to know about “being human” within the context of working and living with others?
Francesca: Most of us know little about the functioning of our internal organs, such as our hearts and our kidneys—a fact we readily admit. When our bodies don’t function as we expect them to, we invest time and energy in learning more about how they work and trying to improve our health. By contrast, we approach our minds differently. 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.
By identifying and accounting for flaws in human intuition, we can all make better decisions for ourselves and better understand the often-puzzling behaviors of our friends, colleagues, and peers. In addition, managers can help create better products and services for their customers and promote more productive environments for their employees. And policy makers can create more effective systems to help all of us stay on track.
Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on judgment and decision making, social influence, ethics, and creativity. Her studies have been featured on CNN and NPR, as well as in leading publications, including The Economist, the Financial Times, The New York Times, Scientific American, and Psychology Today. In 2009, the New York Times featured Gino’s research in the Ninth Annual Year in Ideas.