We are swimming in choices. That can be a good thing–in fact, I named my business CHOICES Worldwide in order to emphasize the power of choice in our businesses and careers. The freedom to choose our vocations based on our unique gifts, talents and abilities is an awesome right and responsibility.
But the choices I’m talking about here are the overwhelming ones we experience in today’s marketplace. Think of your last visit to Home Depot: did you get dizzy just walking down the aisle? And if you’re out of your usual milieu, as I am at Home Depot, the multitude of options for things that I a) don’t know what they are and b) wouldn’t know how to use even if I did know what they were is mind-blowing. Even in an environment I understand, like Target, I can get that same sense of overload. Look at the toothpaste shelves–so many choices! Teeth-whitening, tartar-fighting, fluroride, sensitive teeth, mint, regular… sometimes I just grab one and run.
The abundance of choices and our freedom to choose may be overrated, according to Sheena Iyengar, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010). Dr. Iyengar and her colleagues have done research on the cultural implications of choice, why people make the decisions they make and what drives us to choose. Whether we’re choosing among toothpastes or making more sobering choices related to our careers, we overstate the role of choice in our lives.
In an interview from “Knowledge@Wharton,” Dr. Iyengar shares why a multitude of choices don’t always bring us what we want. “It turns out that we don’t always recognize our preferences even though our choices are supposed to be in line with them,” she says, citing research she’s done at the University of Pennsylvania. When asking seniors what they wanted in a job at three different intervals, the students changed their answers along the way. In the end, the correlation between what they said they wanted at the beginning of the experiment and what they got when they graduated in May was “utterly non-significant.” And the people who remembered what they originally said they wanted were less satisfied with the job offers they had accepted. “Maybe there is some truth to [what our grandmothers told us, that] happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but wanting what you got,” Dr. Iyengar says.
The pursuit of the American dream is based on some assumptions—that our choices are limitless, more is better and choices affirm our individuality and freedom. But the work shared by Dr. Iyengar challenges these assumptions. She cites instances where, given too many options among financial products, employee participation in a 401(K) plan dropped 15%. Overwhelmed by options and exhausted by the volume of choices we make in our lives, we become disengaged. And this can have a powerful impact on us, not just as consumers baffled by 24 varieties of toothpaste but also in our role as business leaders.
Past research has shown that employees report greater job satisfaction when given a high degree of choice. A recent article, “Tiptoeing Toward Freedom” in Columbia Business School’s “Ideas at Work” blog, reported that Dr. Iyengar and graduate student Roy Chua conducted experiments to test how giving employees autonomy and decision-making latitude can impact their perceptions of managers as leaders. Those leaders who offered their employees limited (my emphasis) choices—“some options, but not too many”—were seen as more effective. Too many choices, however, gave employees the perception that their leaders were not as competent or conscientious.
In this high-tech, 24/7 world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices we have to make. Whether you’re thinking about what’s next for you in your career or choosing from a menu, save your brainpower for the choices that matter. And when it comes to toothpaste, grab a box and run.
Note: Some parts of this blog were originally written for and published in the First Illinois Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) Chapter newsletter, First Illinois Speaks.