I’ve had my head in some neuroscience books over the holidays. One of the areas I’m currently interested in is what happens to us when we have choices to make. I’m sure we all instinctively feel that choice is a good thing – the ability to choose gives us empowerment, helps us to tolerate adversity and makes us feel in control. We value the ability to make choices in our lives and can only imagine how unbearable it must be to be stuck without options, to have no way out. Psychologists have proven that we feel better when we have choices in our lives. We even enjoy a meal more if there is choice on the menu. Those of us growing up in affluent developed nations take our ability to choose for granted. And no better is this choice-fest demonstrated than in the way we consume information. I’m old enough to have grown up with only three channels on the telly (in black and white when I was really young) for part of my childhood. I remember getting excited by Ceefax when it first came out because I could read the news or get the footy scores on the TV without having to wait until the allotted bulletin. Now look. The internet and other technologies have opened up a whole new world of choice at our fingertips, and we internal communicators try to replicate this choice with integrated channels, message frameworks and layered content. We fall over ourselves to gather feedback and opinions, we ask people to complete surveys and we encourage them to tell us what they prefer so we can meet their needs. Of course, it feels right to do that, because giving people choice makes them more engaged.
But there is a downside to choice, as Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the cat demonstrates. Faced with a pack of snarling hunting dogs about to bear down on them, the two animals need to escape. For the cat it’s an easy decision to make, and he bolts up a tree. But the cunning fox, blessed with all his knowledge of the various escape options, becomes paralyzed by indecision and falls prey to the dogs. With too many choices on offer, he suffered from analysis paralysis. This ‘paradox of choice’ confronts many of use every day. How often have you stood in a supermarket aisle trying to choose between the 250 varieties of biscuits on offer? I heard on the radio the other day that most people don’t bother to change their gas and electricity supplier because there’s ‘too much choice’. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says that the more choices we are given, the less ‘free’ we become because we procrastinate in trying to make the best decision. So it seems that, while choice is a positive force for good, too much of it can be detrimental. Bringing it back into our world, I sometimes believe that we are in danger of ‘over-engaging’ our people. I know some companies that complete their annual staff survey, publish the results and then go back out to re-survey the same audience to ask what they meant and what should be done next! Sometimes people just want to be asked once and then they expect action. We can over-do this choice thing because we’re worried about being accused of not engaging with our people. But sometimes we need the cat not the fox.