That’s one reason that unconscious processes are a little elusive to study. As soon as people have an inkling of what the right choice is, they’re armed with conscious reasons that support that decision, even if they arrived at it unconsciously.
In our work with MBA students, we talk about the difference between an influence goal and a decision-making goal. When you don’t have a preconceived idea about the right course of action, you might bring people with varied functional expertise into a room. You try to bring their unique expertise to the surface, to arrive at the best alternative. That’s a decision-making goal.
When you have a vision of where you want to go, and you go into the meeting looking for buy-in, that’s an influence goal. You would do very different things to reach each of those two goals.
Of course, if you’re really trying to influence people, it harms you to be seen as having an agenda. One of the tricks of influence is the ability to walk in with an influence goal but appear to have a decision-making goal. Even when everyone knows you have an influence goal—say you’ve been brought in to cut costs—you want to do what you can to assuage their concern that you only have one type of goal in mind. So you might say something like “You all know I’ve been brought in here to cut costs, but you also need to know I have a bigger goal: to make decisions for the long-term health of the company. And there are different ways to do this. What are your ideas?”
S+B: Suppose you can’t tap into the unconscious. Is there a way to improve conscious decision making—say, by breaking a complex issue down into three or four smaller issues?
NORDGREN: The problem with that approach is that it disrupts natural weighing. If you think of consciousness like a spotlight, it’s always illuminating a subset of the information. Imagine that you’re looking at a car and deciding whether to buy it or not. If you evaluate each part of it separately—kicking the tires, checking the dashboard, clocking the acceleration—the data shows that your weighing of that information will be relatively poor. If the last thing you look at is the trunk size, your decision might hinge on that, when, in reality, trunk space might be a relatively unimportant factor.
Why Not Sleep on It?
S+B: What led you to your own interest in this field of research?
NORDGREN: I came into experimental psychology at a time in which a new field was emerging called the new unconscious. Its mission was to understand the extent to which behavior is guided by processes outside of conscious awareness. When I started my Ph.D., this field had considerable steam. A lot of fascinating work had come out of it, about the way people’s goals get primed outside conscious awareness. That intrigued me, and it seemed it might apply to the one realm that seems most governed by conscious forces: decisions, reasoning, and the higher-order mental functions.
I got my Ph.D. in psychology and had never considered joining a business school faculty, but there has been a movement at Kellogg to bring in people from other disciplines: social network theory, sociology, “big data” analysis, and so on. Once you’re there, you find the connections to business. I think it’s a great way to bring new ideas into the MBA curriculum.
S+B: What are some of the most common mistakes that business leaders make when they’re trying to either drive a group to a decision or make one themselves?
NORDGREN: One is forcing a decision to be made right after the discussion, as opposed to pausing for delay and distraction—a period of incubation to allow the mind to sift through the information, sort it out, and make sense of it.