Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan

SidetrackedThe following except is from Professor Francesca Gino’s book, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan.

The business press often reports stories of CEOs, managers, and their companies setting out to accomplish specific goals and ending up with very different outcomes. In my own study of various organizations, I have observed several circumstances in which decision makers are likely to get sidetracked. Experienced managers may plan carefully for their negotiations but end up with very different deals after being caught up “in the heat of the moment.” Similarly, team leaders may plan to spur success by using a participative approach to problem solving but fail due to their difficulty putting themselves in their team members’ shoes.

Why do our plans so often go astray? My research led me to a puzzling conclusion about our nature as human beings: our goals and plans are often inconsistent with how we actually behave.

Whether we are making plans for today, next week, or many years from now, when the actual moment of decision arrives, subtle forces can sidetrack us. Typically, getting sidetracked leads to disappointing outcomes and negative consequences for both ourselves and our organizations. It also leads us to regret the fact that we didn’t follow through on our plans.

There are three sets of forces that sidetrack our decisions as we implement our plans: (1) forces from within ourselves, (2) forces from our relationships with others, and (3) forces from the outside world. Understanding how these forces operate can be helpful in two main ways. First, it can help us stick to our well-thought-out plans going forward. Second, it can help us understand and decode the often puzzling behavior of our colleagues, friends, and bosses.

Forces from within

As it turns out, our own thoughts and feelings can sidetrack us. In a 2006 issue of Inc. magazine focused on entrepreneurial mistakes, Gary Heavin, the founder and former CEO of the U.S. fitness chain Curves International, reflected on his career. Heavin was running his first chain of gyms in Houston, Texas by the time he was 30 but filed for bankruptcy only a few years later. He learned from this first business failure and partnered up with his wife to fund Curves International, a successful Texas-based fitness franchise. When reflecting on his first CEO job, Heavin noted that he used the words “I” and “me” too often and the words “us” and “we” not often enough – that is, he placed too much confidence in himself and too much responsibility on his own shoulders.

The words “I” and “me” pervade our decision making because of the positive views we hold of our competence and abilities. Though certainly helpful in many contexts, overly positive beliefs in our abilities can hinder sound decision making. For instance, if entrepreneurs think their ideas are better than those of their competitors, they may take unwarranted risks. And if team leaders are too confident in their own knowledge, they may be reluctant to listen to the opinions of team members, even when they would lead to better outcomes for all.

Forces from our relationships with others

As you may recall, Tom Hanks won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actor in 1993 (for Philadelphia) and in 1994 (for Forrest Gump). Several movie critics later noted that although Hanks’ performance was excellent in these films, it was at least as impressive in some of his subsequent movies, including Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Castaway. Yet Hanks’ fellow actors did not give him enough votes to even be nominated for an Oscar in any of these movies. Though there are a number of likely explanations for this fact, one cited by movie critics is the possibility that Tom Hanks’ peers, for jealous reasons, did not want him to win a third Oscar. In fact, if Hanks were to win other awards, at least some of his peers would come up short when comparing their Academy Award performance to that of Hanks.[i]

This anecdote illustrates the common tendency to evaluate ourselves on various dimensions by looking at others. We can often answer the questions that most nag us about ourselves – ranging from “Am I a good leader?” to “Do I make good decisions?” – by comparing our attitudes and actions with those of other people, such as peers or colleagues. When we compare ourselves unfavorably to someone else, we are likely to experience distress, jealousy or envy. These emotions can lower our self-esteem and lead us to somewhat dysfunctional behaviors.

Forces from the outside world

In 2010, a heated public conflict broke out between FIJI Water, a U.S. supplier of premium bottled water, and the government of Fiji, led by its prime minister and military dictator, Frank Bainimarama. At that time, the Fijian government was struggling financially because of various natural disasters and government corruption. To increase its coffers, the government decided to raise its tax on companies that extracted water above a certain level. As it turns out, FIJI Water was the only water bottler on the island large enough to be affected by the new tax. The tax increase was dramatic: from one third of a Fijian cent to 15 cents per liter. It was expected to net the government $11.7 million annually.

Based on the high prices FIJI Water charged its customers, Bainimarama’s government assumed that the company was highly successful and that the tax increase would be easy for it to swallow. In reality, FIJI Water was a small player in the bottled water industry. In response to the tax increase, the company shut down its bottling plant, laid off its 400 employees, and cancelled its contracts. Calling the new tax increase discriminatory and the Fijian government unstable, FIJI Water representatives publicly threatened to pull out of Fiji completely. In the end, given that the company had built its name and reputation on bottling clean, pure water from Fiji, it decided not to leave the islands. Though FIJI Water ultimately agreed to pay the tax increase, the government’s inaccurate view of the company’s financial situation soured the relationship between the two parties.

All of us are predisposed to make biased attributions of others’ behavior, as Bainimarama and his government did. In particular, we tend to discount the impact of situational factors on others and their actions. This tendency may sidetrack us as we make decisions across a variety of contexts, including HR decisions. For instance, managers may be more likely to promote a salesperson who is performing well in a region with high product demand rather than another salesperson who is performing at lower levels in a more difficult region.

The three forces are just the beginning. To learn more about Professor Gino’s research, including how you can actually stay on track when it comes to decision making, check out her book, Sidetracked.

About the Author

Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School, a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Behavioral Insights Group, and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. She co-chairs an HBS executive education program on applying behavioral economics to organizational problems and teaches PhD courses on Behavioral Approaches to Decision Making and on Experimental Methods. In addition to teaching, Professor Gino advises firms and not-for-profit organizations in the areas of negotiation, decision making, and organizational behavior. Follow her on Twitter @francescagino.

[i] Elizabeth Weitzman, “Movies and Actors Who Were Robbed of Oscar Gold,” New York Daily News, February 21, 2008,