In business and as a consumer, there is a balance to be struck between having enough choices, and having so many, that the sun goes down before we’ve chosen. Consumers are diverse, and so are business people, some admittedly picker than others. So when can too much choice become a crutch?
In 2004, A Man named Barry Schwartz decided to take a tour of the supermarket and discovered a staggering fact: we have between twenty and a hundred choices for almost everything we buy. The average American visits the supermarket once every week, and spends 25 minutes at the grocery store. So while having to choose between endless varieties of instant oatmeal seems harmless, it puts an enormous drain on our time and energy. In 2000, to find out how damaging choice can be to our sales teams, researchers set up two tasting booths for exotic jams in a gourmet food store. One booth contained 6 flavors, and the other 24 varieties. Unsurprisingly, significantly more people visited the booth with the large selection. However there was a staggering difference in sales between the two stands – the booth with the small selection sold ten times as many jars of jam as the booth with a large selection. The average buyer believes more choice is a good thing, and will initially be attracted to your company because of a wide product offering. However psychologists have found that too much choice (in addition to reducing sales conversions) actually leaves the buyer feeling less satisfied with his or her eventual decision regardless of the choice.
So what do buyers have in common with your seemingly abrasive boss?
Choice affects our businesses in one other crucial way: it can cause tension between upper level managers strapped for time and their more indecisive employees. Lots of American employees have somehow gotten the impression that their managers would like to be the ‘supreme leaders’ of their workplaces, consulted on every decision everyone makes. This is rarely the case, supervisors almost always want their employees to make decisions, and limit the more mundane issues brought to their desk each day. Just ask Barack Obama, who is tasked with making the most important decisions in the world every day. In a rare behind the scenes interview, Obama mentions he wears only grey or blue suits, has his ties chosen for him and his meals pre-planned. One might imagine the president scrutinizes his wardrobe and diet more, but Obama says: “You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy.” When American CEOs say they don’t have time, they truly mean it. Though their decisions don’t affect the geopolitical landscape of the world, they still absorb tremendous amounts of energy, and CEO’s want to focus on improving the company as best they can. Employees in a high functioning company should be empowered to make decisions on their own and ask upper management for feedback for choices that are of high importance. As you develop an engagement strategy for your office, keep in mind that choices can be liberating, but are also paralyzing. Engaged employees have a high level understanding of why they do what they do, and don’t need the liberty of choosing between hundreds of vendors. Companies who wish to engage their workforce and satisfy their buyers should focus their attention on clarifying their goals and objectives, not affording endless options to their workers and consumers. Contrary to popular belief, employees and managers alike enjoy following the direction of their peers when the company strategy and objectives are well defined. Below are some best practices for avoiding the allure of excessive choices and creating more engaged employees:
- Whenever possible avoid asking what someone else would like to see. Instead present your ideas and discuss them with your coworkers. Regardless of whether or not the team settles on your idea, being presented with simple, specific choices is less mentally taxing, and benefits everyone involved.
- Keep your eye on the prize. Don’t get preoccupied with menial decisions, and don’t ask others to make decisions you can instead make yourself. Asking for feedback is often appropriate and appreciated, but your initiative will be appreciated even more.
- Weed out the bad apples. When you ask your coworkers or managers to make a decision, filter out options and information that’s irrelevant to them. Present them with a small array choices that fit their needs best. Managers will be more satisfied with their eventual choice, and can focus their attention on the company’s most pressing needs.
- Provide training to your employees as part of the onboarding process. Make sure they know when it’s appropriate for them to make decisions and when approvals are needed. The more educated your employees and managers are on the company philosophy, the more empowered they will be to make appropriate decisions.
About the AuthorMore Content by Jeff Ford