Plan what NOT to do in 2017!

A new year is on the horizon. For many people it is time to make resolutions about what to do in the coming year. This year, instead of focusing entirely on what you want to do, consider thinking more carefully about those things you want to avoid. Our recent research, also covered by WSJ print, found that the secret to success is knowing what NOT to do and then not doing it! For instance, there were many things during this past year that experts advised should not be done – such as NOT to do a Brexit, NOT to elect ultra-nationalist voices and NOT to demonetize one’s currency without a plan. Only time will tell whether these were actually bad decisions. We find that recognizing a bad decision and avoiding it is far more important for success than focusing on the best things to do.


Figure 1

Our evidence came from tracking job success. We found that the most successful salespersons, customer service agents and managers weren’t those who chose the “best” course of action in a given situation, but rather were those who knew what NOT to do in a situation and avoided those actions. For instance, in a situation when you are very late for a sales meeting, what one absolutely should not do is fail to apologize. On the other hand, there might be different ways one could apologize or show regret, some being better than others, as deemed by experts. However, our work showed choosing among these different ways of expressing regret was not predictive of one’s success in a sales job. What mattered was the ability to identify what should not be done (i.e., expressing no regret). The wrong response may seem obvious in this situation, but it isn’t obvious to everyone and is also not obvious for many other situations.

Our study was based on a methodology called situational judgment testing. We provided candidates with a series of specific situations and asked them to choose from among a number of possible ways to respond to each situation – a technique known as situational judgment testing or SJT (see Figure 2 for an example). We asked them to choose which of the options presented for each situation would be the best way to respond and which would be the worst. We then analyzed the data to see if their choices predicted actual job performance (such as sales targets achieved) for a few different roles.

Figure 2: Sample question from a SJT

We expected that the people who were most successful in the workplace would be those who were able to identify what experts in the field said were the best ways to respond to each scenario. It turns out that was not the case. Instead, what we found was that the people who were most successful on the job were those who were correctly able to identify the worst answer to a larger number of situations. They knew what course of action was important to avoid for more scenarios. Specifically, the correlation between the ability to correctly identify the worst responses and job performance ranged r = 0.28 to 0.33 and was statistically significant. By contrast, the correlation between the ability to correctly identify the best responses to the scenarios and performance ranged r = 0.14 to 0.16 and was not statistically significant.

This work has important ramifications, the first and most immediate of which is being able to filter and hire better performers simply by concentrating on whether they know how to avoid doing the wrong things, which are typically widely-agreed upon, rather than trying to find people who pick the best answer. This should influence interview methodologies, case based discussions and other ways of candidate evaluation.

Another significant contribution is to the field of situational judgment testing. Unlike IQ tests, situational judgment tests are traditionally hard to standardize. Different organizations, functions and cultures have different notions of the ‘best’ way to handle a situation. Thus, with the best answer philosophy, one needs to build different tests and scoring mechanisms for each. On the other hand, the contribution of our work is that the ‘worst’ answer is more universal and consistent across diverse environment. It suggests that the development of SJTs can be relatively standardized across fields of study in a way that has not previously been possible.

Above and beyond all of these, the results have implications for our daily lives. Specifically, the results suggest that maybe this year you ought to concentrate on what ‘not to do’ and train your mind to avoid those things! Our conjecture is that it will lead to better happiness to your lives.

Make a start and list out what things you will avoid doing in 2017. We have our top on the list…Not write boring blogs!

-Varun and Steve