When I was young I had trouble deciding what gift to buy for a friend’s birthday. Truth is, I had trouble with a lot of decisions then. Though I’ve become better at it, I’d say it’s still a struggle. Perhaps the birthday conundrum stays with me because my mom had great advice that somehow simplified it for me.
Mom’s approach, as I stood indecisive in the toy aisle, was for me to choose the gift that I would like to receive. I could simply pretend to pick a gift for myself, then give it to my friend. This mental shift saved me from the paralysis of wondering what my friend might like. And since it wasn’t really for me, I didn’t have to worry about regretting my choice, either.
I can report this trick doesn’t work as well for gifts into adulthood. I could buy myself most any business book off the shelf, for example. That’s less likely to appeal to my wife. While we can’t use mom’s exact advice, a reverse approach can help anyone make decisions.
Give Advice to a Friend, Then Take the Advice Yourself
If you’re struggling with a choice, simply imagine the advice you’d give a friend in a similar situation. The book Decisive calls this “attaining distance.” You might not think you’re capable of tricking yourself this way, but many people do give others advice they wouldn’t give themselves. In one example from the book, people are given two choices:
- An uncertain path with the possibility of long-term happiness
- A safer choice of the status quo
When deciding between the two for themselves, 66% select that first path of potential happiness. When advising others, 83% of people suggest the first path.
There’s a famous story, also retold in Decisive, about how Intel switched its business to microprocessors (how they’re best known today). The change had an uncertain path, but included a possibility of long term happiness (i.e., success for the business). Their historical market was in memory and was a safer choice only because they were the leader.
Intel’s exec’s were having a hard time deciding between those paths when one asked the other: “if we were fired, what would the new team do?”
By pretending to advise someone else, it was clear the answer was to take the risk on microprocessors.
My Favorite Interview Question is About Weaknesses
The answer to the classic weakness question in job interviews is painfully predictable:
“I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can intimidate my co-workers by being too good at my job.”
Asking someone their weaknesses requires them to not only be self-aware, but also honest. That’s a lot to ask in a scenario where everyone is trying to show their most positive attributes.
The book Who suggests a reframing of the question. While discussing a previous supervisor, you ask “if I talked to them, what would they say are your biggest strengths and areas for improvement?”
We used this question when I worked at Orchestrate and it was amazing how much better the answers you get with this change in perspective. Sometimes people were maybe even a little too honest. It’s much harder to give the weakness-that’s-a-strength reply when you’re answering on behalf of another person, especially someone who the interviewer might talk to if they check references.
Be Objective, Make Better Decisions
Whether you’re struggling with a personal choice or making a hire for your company, objectivity is your friend. It’s hard to be truly objective and even harder to force that on a candidate. You can frame questions–to yourself and others–in a way to nudge the answerer to flip their perspective. How would someone else answer this question? How would you answer this question for someone else?