Managing Your Willpower at Work

It is a season that employee turnover is beginning to creep up. A talent has just left. The remaining staff are overloaded taking on additional responsibilities. People are stressed, morale spirals downwards and the trickle of talent loss might become a gush if you do not quickly hire a replacement.

Prepare the job description, get HR to broadcast, tap on internal and external network to find a replacement. Everything goes according to plan so far. A list of 5 candidates are shortlisted and it is time to interview them and make a decision. Your options are:

  1. Schedule all interviews in one day from 2-7pm.
  2. Schedule three interviews after 5pm on one day and another two interviews after 5pm the next day.
  3. Schedule three interviews from 8:30am onwards on one day and two interviews after 2pm the next day.

How many of you would select Option A? If you have selected Option A, it would seem most efficient to finish all the interviews in an afternoon. But you may have set yourself up to make an important decision suboptimally. Why? Imagine you are energised after lunch and in the first interview, you ask a lot of tough questions. You are happy as you got some good answers from the first candidate. As the interview process wears on, you are beginning to feel tired and by the time it comes to the 4th and 5th interview, you are tired and hungry. You are also more prone to be frustrated if the 4th and 5th candidates are a little bit weaker in their answers. Because you are drained, you might tend to ask less probing questions to end the last two interviews quickly. You might be less than thorough in the last few interviews.goal

Then you are asked to make a decision on the hire. This is an important decision. It has the potential to affect your team’s productivity, morale and sometimes even your sanity. You need to choose and most of the time you might go with the first or second candidate. In the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, the authors quoted research studies on parole hearing indicated a higher degree of probability for the parole board to grant parole to the first few candidates compared with the last few candidates. The authors goes further to state that sometimes when our “willpower” has been severely tested, we either cannot decide or make suboptimal choices. For an organization, hire decisions can create immense downstream repercussions in terms of productivity, morale and sometimes even the survival of the company.

Let’s consider option B. Is it suboptimal? I believe it is. First, psychological studies have shown that we should not make important decisions when we are mentally and physically depleted. Scheduling the interviews after 5pm might allow us to get some work done in the day but we are required to make an important talent decision just when clear judgment is needed most. Second, we have to shift our thinking about what is “work”. We have a tendency to consider our primary work activities as attending endless meetings, writing emails, brainstorming with colleagues, talking to customers, but when it comes to interviewing key hires, that is sometimes considered a secondary activity. Thus, we schedule the secondary activity after we have completed the primary work activities. Interviewing a potential hire is a primary work activity. In fact, a pivotal role of a manager is to attract, engage and retain our talents.

Think of a time when you snapped at your staff or a loved one, made a bad decision or caved in under pressure. If you reflect on these events, you will find that these poor decisions have been made when your willpower has been severly stretched and strained. We should use our knowledge of willpower to defend ourselves against making poor decisions just when we are mentally or physically depleted. Consciously avoiding situations which will test our willpower is a better strategy than relying on sheer willpower to push through.

So, next time you are about to make an important decision, consider if you are at your clearest and most alert state. It might have serious consequences for your team and in some cases, ultimately your career.

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