Two people walk into your company, and you hire the wrong one.  Worse than a bad joke, bad hiring costs greenbacks and induces more heartburn than chicken wings.  Cindi and Geoff discuss solutions.

Show Notes

Mistakes are a part of life, but when they happen in business, they can be costly. That’s why Management Muse brought you this episode, to help you identify a common management mistake—question substitution error—and to improve your own decision-making skills.

Today, Cindi and Geoff discuss substitution error, which happens when our brains unconsciously replace the tougher questions in our day-to-day lives with simpler ones, because our brains are constantly trying to help us find shortcuts.

The substitution error occurs at work and at home, and almost happened to Cindi and Geoff as a very costly mistake on vacation. In addition to talking about ways to compensate for substitution error, this episode also covers the destructive impact of exhaustion, hunger, and decision fatigue on our decision making. Cindi and Geoff also talk about why timeshares are substitution errors (answering the easier question of Do I want to buy this? instead of the harder question of Should I buy this? or How much is this really worth?), how hiring can end up as a question substitution error (Do I like this person? (easy) instead of Is this person likely to be successful in this job? (harder), and how to reduce the negative effect of question substitution at work and at home.

Episode Highlights:

  • Question substitution occurs when our brains default to simpler questions, like How do I feel right now? (simple), instead of How do I feel about the issue I’m facing? (harder).
  • When hiring new employees, it’s easy to ask ourselves how we feel about a person. The harder question is whether the interviewee will be successful in the position.
  • According to Roy Baumeister and colleagues, decision fatigue—making too many decisions at once—or making decisions while hungry or tired, all increase the chances of decision-making errors, including question substitution.
  • When our brain senses that something is hard, it tries to reduce the cognitive load by simplifying, or by looking for a quicker and easier rule of thumb to generate an answer. That’s often helpful, but not always. Understanding question substitution can help us better appreciate when our brain is helpfully making something easy for us, and when the simplification is counterproductively steering us away from the question we actually need to answer.
  • Postpone serious decisions, when possible, if you are tired, hungry, or have already made a number of decisions back-to-back.
  • When we are tired or in decision fatigue, we’ll often agree to anything, just to get out of the decision-making situation, or we’ll select the safest, most conservative decision. Both of these shortcuts replace a harder question (What should we actually decide?) with an easier question (How do I get out of this mentally taxing situation quickly?).

Time Stamps:

[0:45] Understanding question substitution from Cindi and Geoff’s impromptu visit to an art gallery

[5:06] Deep dive into question substitution and how the brain routinely substitutes the hard questions into simpler ones to reduce our cognitive load

[7:05] The questions Geoff and Cindi asked themselves and substituted internally as their brains were thinking whether to buy an expensive photograph

[9:09] What question substitution suggests about timeshares

[11:59] Why timeshares are often instances of answering an easier question

[14:19] Why hiring based on gut feeling is often a substitution error

[16:09] How the unpredictability of job interviews encourages question substitution

[20:25] Hiring the best employees for your organization by maximizing the benefits of different perspectives and viewpoints

[22:52] A study of decision fatigue and parole decisions in the Israeli penal system

[24:29] Best times for hiring, and how to reduce question substitution

[26:15] How tiredness, hunger, and repeated decisions cause decision fatigue

[26:37] Two strategies to reduce the negative impact of decision fatigue

[28:16] A common substitution error: Going with what you’re feeling right now

[33:22] When emotion leads your decision-making

[35:04] How to cope with the hard questions to reduce management errors

[36:23] Asking yourself a question more than once to reduce errors

[43:48] How we make substitution errors unconsciously

[44:26] How to move toward better decisions

[44:54] What to do when you notice red flags in group decision making

Episode Quotes from Cindi and Geoffrey:

“Our brain is amazing in so many ways. Basically, as soon as it can, it makes everything that we know automatic, so we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Whether that’s driving, cooking, brushing your teeth, any one of a multitude of things that we do, the brain turns and makes it automatic, and basically says, we’re going to free up more space for you to do other stuff. And as a part of that, the brain is really sensitive if something hard comes along, looking for an automatic shortcut.” – Geoffrey Tumlin

“In employee hiring, if you have to justify why you’re choosing one particular person and the justification is: ‘I just feel good about that person,’ then you are probably making a substitution error.” – Cindi Baldi

“Your brain is trying to help. It knows when something is hard. And it’ll try to be helpful, and give you something easier to answer instead.” – Geoffrey Tumlin

Episode Resources:

Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman, Penguin: New York. See Chapter 9: Answering an Easier Question.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011) by Roy Baumeister and James Tierney, Penguin: New York.

Danziger, S., Levav, J., and Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011) Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(17), 6889-6892.

KW: decision making, business decision making, life questions, decision fatigue, gut instinct, tough questions, question substitution

We incorrectly referred to the Israeli Parole Board study as being from Roy Baumsieter and colleagues, when, in fact, the study is from Shai Danziger referenced above.