In his fascinating book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, sociologist Barry Schwartz argues that more choice is sometimes less for companies and their people. Indeed, “Part of the downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs, and trade-offs have psychological consequences.”
Choice and anticipatory regret
Among the psychological consequences are delayed decision-making, where individuals are often hindered by anticipatory regret – a situation where decisions become unpleasant because of the perceived opportunities that must be turned down when a person selects a particular course of action.
Schwartz provides numerous examples of where an emphasis on choice – along with a deep devotion to the ideals of autonomy and freedom – can do more harm than damage in a sector or part of life. These range from supermarket shopping and healthcare to education and religion; however, I focus in this blog post on the role of choice in workplaces.
Although emphasising choice, freedom and autonomy in the workplace has its benefits – particularly in how employees are empowered to bring their “best selves” to work – there are equal risks that can prevent organisations from fully engaging their employees, and potentially losing them altogether.
In discussing the importance of choice, Schwartz writes that “Choice is what enables us to tell the world who we are and what we care about” – it is expressive. Choice is furthermore a “testament to our autonomy, to our sense of self-determination.” Autonomy is “the reason we praise individuals for their achievements and also blame them for their failures,” but this only occurs when individuals are provided with opportunities to reason and then choose.
Schwartz, interestingly, only briefly discusses the roles of choice in the workplace, writing that “Being able to move around, changing employers and even careers, opens doors to challenging and fulfilling options.” And yet choice “comes at a price, and the price is the daily burden of gathering information and making decisions.” Based on experiences working with organisations across sectors, and with their individual employees, his commentary rings true.
Millennials; socially conscious but unfocused?
Several weeks ago, in attending an event bringing together 450 changemakers (all between the ages of 20 and 30) each representing their own city, the major takeaway was less in the ideas discussed in panels and workshops, and more in the individuals’ behaviours.
In conversations with representatives across cities extending from Los Angeles and Mumbai to Vladivostkok and Pretoria, the vast majority of individuals were actively considering new career paths while simultaneously remarking on the fact that they largely enjoyed their existing jobs. Inundated with options, and what they feel are opportunities to shape their own life trajectories – that is, to choose where they will go – this leads to what I feel is a scatteredness in action. This is exhausting, for companies but more importantly their people. Indeed, I have found that the Millennial generation, though highly ambitious and socially-conscious, is yet lacking in its ability to focus on a single life path beyond a three-year horizon.
Most individuals in attendance at this conference consider themselves social entrepreneurs. Some work in large consultancies and accountancies, though many in businesses they have grown themselves. Nearly everyone emphasised the significance of achieving impact in their work, and in working within organisations with a demonstrated social purpose – what Dr Neil Stott characterises as organisational virtue in his blog post “Towards a 360 degree virtue.”
Too much choice?
It goes without question that people – whether working in corporations or social ventures – should be provided with autonomy and freedom to pursue their own goals and take advantage of their talents. The 450 changemakers in attendance at this summit should also be commended for their commitment to taking action in the world, along with thousands of others. However, too much choice, as Schwartz argues, can become detrimental both for companies and the people within them.
I agree with Stott in that organisational virtue is only truly achieved when an organisation strives “to do good and well in every action an organisation makes.” Central to taking action is the ability to choose, where employees are empowered to think and make decisions they feel are best in a particular situation. But there is a point at which choice – in terms of what a person feels they deserve, how they can work, and where else they might take their talents – can be disruptive both to a person’s own direction in life as well as the sustainability of their company. This is, as I see it, a fundamental issue in the modern workforce: how best to engage socially-conscious innovators without losing their talents as they consider opportunities to move elsewhere.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Stott, N. (2015). “Towards a 360 degree virtue.” The University of Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation Blog.
Emerson Csorba is a Director of Gen Y Inc, a workplace culture consultancy focused on improving cross-generational engagement between employees in preparation for the future of work. He read for a MPhil in Politics, Development and Democratic Education at the University of Cambridge, in Pembroke College.