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The social default is our third insidious enemy, nudging us to conform. We fall in line with an idea or behaviour simply because other people do.Getty Images/iStockphoto

After a talk in New York City on making decisions, Shane Parrish, an Ottawa thought leader and founder of the Farnam Street knowledge blog, was approached by a woman with a question about her job. The event had run late so he apologized, explaining he had to rush to catch his plane. She offered to have her driver take them to the airport if she could pick his brain along the way.

“Nothing like a trusting Canadian to get in the car of a complete stranger in New York,” he writes in his new book, Clear Thinking.

She was one of two candidates vying to be the next CEO of her firm and she felt the difficult business problem they were facing could determine her fate. Although her proposed solution would likely work, it was complicated and the implementation risky. An alternative solution was simpler, lower cost and carried less risk. But it had been devised by her rival.

Mr. Parrish told her that for the longest time he thought if the best idea wasn’t his idea, he’d have failed. But when he began running a business he recognized that was foolish. “When everything is on your shoulders and the cost of being wrong is high, I told her, you tend to focus on what’s right instead of who’s right,” he writes.

If you owned 100 per cent of the company and couldn’t sell it for 100 years, he asked, what would you do? She took that approach, supporting her rival’s proposal. And it had a happy ending: She was named CEO, the board impressed she could put the company’s success above her ego.

Clear thinking, he argues, has four main enemies, and ego is one of those villains. They are default behaviours, impulses that allow our biology to hijack our brain. “Reacting without thinking makes every situation worse,” he notes.

The ego default prompts us to promote and protect our self image at all costs. “The ego default urges us to feel right at the expense of being right,” he says. It pushes us to put our desire to feel right over the best interests of our company or our colleagues.

The emotion default is anger, fear or other moods that make us feel compelled to act immediately even though that action is not in our best interests. He points to Sonny Corleone, in The Godfather, whose impulsive nature leads him to initiate an all-out war with other gangs when his father is in the hospital, resulting in his own assassination. “Emotions can make even the best of us into idiots, driving us away from clear thinking,” Mr. Parrish says.

The social default is our third insidious enemy, nudging us to conform. We fall in line with an idea or behaviour simply because other people do. Essentially, he says, we are outsourcing our thoughts, beliefs and outcomes to others.

Inertia is the fourth default. We resist change even when it’s for the best. Inertia prevents us from doing hard things. It keeps us in jobs we don’t want and our organizations enmeshed in problems leaders accept rather than challenge. Essentially, inertia keeps us doing things that don’t get us where we want.

“The defaults will handily take command of our lives if we don’t manage them,” he warns.

We need safeguards – tools to protect us from ourselves – and he shares five strategies:

  • Prevention: Avoid decision-making in unfavourable situations. Stress has been shown to be a big contributor to bad decisions. Alcoholics Anonymous alerts its members through the HALT acronym about when to be careful of being sucked into drinking: Hungry, angry, lonely and tired. That’s a good general prescription of when to be wary during decision-making.
  • Automatic rules for success: Create barriers through rules that fight back against your impulses. For example, Nobel-prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman will never say yes to a request on the phone, which counters his desire in the moment to have the other person like him. Mr. Parrish has a no meetings before lunch rule so he can work mornings on his most important opportunity.
  • Create friction: Increase the effort required to do things that are contrary to your goals. Some people take nuisances such as X (formerly Twitter) – even email – off their phone’s first screen. Mr. Parrish has a rule of working free from distractions during those all-important mornings, leaving email and taking calls for the afternoon.
  • Put up guardrails: Develop procedures that create pockets of time to think more clearly. Checklists, like pilots use before takeoffs, force us to slow down what we’re doing and go back to the basics.
  • Shift your perspective: A co-worker who tended to ignore other people’s perspectives switched to beginning discussions by offering his impressions of how the other person saw things and then would ask, “What did I miss?”

Mr. Parrish also urges you to live with a decision, at least overnight, before announcing it. That gives time to look at it from a new perspective and verify your assumptions. It can counter the dangers of emotions, ego, social conformity and inertia – the four defaults that haunt us.


  • The best customer loyalty programs don’t have points, says Ottawa consultant Shaun Belding. Don’t confuse being a hostage with customer loyalty, or bribery and entrapment with loyalty either. Real, sustainable loyalty comes from trust, which is created by caring, competency and integrity.
  • When designing diversity and inclusion programs, consider the variations in impact on subgroups, advises Vanessa Conzon, an assistant professor of management and organization at Boston College. For example, in her research at a midsize American professional services organization, there was an important difference between the experiences of most female employees, who benefited from the policy, and female managers, who were harmed.
  • The more authority you have, the louder you seem, notes executive coach Dan Rockwell. Ask “what happened?” and it can seem like an accusation. You’re curious; they think they did something wrong.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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