“People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled.”
That’s simple truth #46 in my book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, co-written with Ken Blanchard. The truth is most people don’t actually resist change itself. They resist being told to change and forced to go along with it. In reality, they resist being controlled. They resent not having a choice.
Choice is an incredibly powerful psychological need. In the world of motivation theory, it’s commonly accepted that humans have three core psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We express our desire for autonomy through choice—the ability to exert control over our environment. Research also indicates control is a biological necessity.[i] Evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and brain neuroimaging suggests the desire for control is a biological imperative.
I believe the more leaders afford team members the opportunity to exert control by making their own choices, the more success they will have in building trust, managing change efforts, and empowering others.
Principles of Choice
Here are six leadership principles to consider as you look to leverage the power of choice:
1. Choice increases a person’s sense of control. As I mentioned previously, one of our core psychological needs is autonomy. In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, my friend and colleague, Susan Fowler, says “Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.”
The more autonomy a person has to freely choose their course of action, the more motivated and committed they will be to that decision. That’s why we included simple truth #22 in our book: “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” If you want people to be accountable, to get on board with new strategies and changes, then find ways to give them choices to help shape the plan.
2. Choice produces higher personal satisfaction…even if there is no difference in outcome or reward. This is a fascinating psychological phenomenon. It has been demonstrated, both in animal and human research, that there is a preference for choice over non-choice[ii]. When presented with two options, animals and humans prefer the option that leads to a second choice over one that does not, even though the expected value of both options is the same and making a second choice requires greater expenditure of energy.
Any parent who has tried to get a stubborn toddler to eat its dinner or wear a certain outfit understands the power of this principle.
My son Matthew was incredibly headstrong as a toddler, and he’d fight with me tooth and nail when I tried to force decisions upon him. My parental decisions collided directly with his need for choice. When I finally wised up to this principle, I started to let him choose between a few different options of what to eat or wear. Problem solved! He got to express his need for choice, and I met my goal of making sure he was well fed and clothed.
Adults in the workplace are more sophisticated than stubborn toddlers, but the principle works the same. Even if you face constraints that don’t allow for much difference in outcomes, just giving people the ability to choose a course of action results in higher satisfaction than no choice at all.
3. Choice is a reward in and of itself. This principle builds on the previous one. In addition to choice producing higher personal satisfaction, the act of choosing is a reward in and of itself.[iii] Neuroimaging studies show that the rewards and motivation processing regions of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex and striatum) “light up” to a greater extent when we receive rewards based on choice versus rewards being passively received.
So, how can leaders leverage this principle? An obvious area is how rewards and recognition programs are managed. Instead of designating specific gifts, rewards, or prizes for a particular achievement (service anniversaries, meeting sales quotas, etc.), offer people choices in what they can select. That gives individuals twice the pleasure in not only gaining a reward but also being able to choose the specific
4. Lack of choice increases stress. If choice is a reward and produces personal satisfaction, then it’s not much of stretch to realize that no choice produces stress. Scientific studies show that removal of choice increases the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), suppresses the immune system, and results in the development of what researchers call “maladaptive” (aka, bad!) behaviors.[iv]
In the workplace, lack of choice results in people having a greater sense of fear, increased negativity about their environment, developing learned helplessness, and placing more focus on how to regain control, all of which leads to more “maladaptive” behaviors. Yikes!
5. Too much choice increases stress. Didn’t I just say that lack of choice increases stress? Yes, I did. So, doesn’t that mean more choice should reduce stress? Yes, but only to a point. Research points out there is a difference in the desire to want choice versus the desire to make a choice.[v]
Have you ever wanted to paint a room in your house and been overwhelmed with deciding among the 87 different shades of your chosen color that are available at the home improvement store? Or, what about trying to decide which streaming service(s) you should use if you cut the cord on cable TV? Good luck with that!
Although a greater number of choices seem preferable, too many choices quickly lead to cognitive overload. That causes us to sticking with the status quo—not deciding—as a way to cope with the stress. People would rather make no choice than make the wrong one. How ironic! Leverage the power of this principle by giving your people choice, but within reasonable boundaries.
6. Complexity of choices increases the need for trust. When faced with complex situations, incomplete information, or a lack of resources, we turn to trusted advisors to either assist us in the decision-making process or actually making the decision on our behalf. It could be a family member, physician, attorney, boss, or any other person we feel is more capable of making the “best” decision.
This is where leaders earn their pay. If leaders have done a good job building high-trust relationships with their people, they will willingly come to you for help with these sorts of dilemmas. If you don’t have that level of trust, your people will try to address the situation on their own even though they feel ill-equipped to do so. They are also more likely to give you the monkey and let you own the problem, or perhaps worst of all, they will do nothing and let the situation fester.
The Choice is Yours
Trust between you and your team is the key to succeeding in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. You must trust the competence and commitment of your team members to exert control and make wise choices. And your team members must trust you to set them up for success and be there to support them when they need it.
Let me close by returning to where I started. The simple truth, “People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled,” speaks to our fundamental human need for control, which is expressed through our desire for choice. The greater degree that leaders can offer their people choice, and thereby increase their sense of control, the greater the likelihood people will be engaged in their work, empowered by their freedom to choose, and achieve goals that are important to the organization.
It seems like a slam dunk to me, but only you can decide if this fits into your approach to leadership. The choice is yours.
[i] Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control – PMC (nih.gov)
[ii] The lure of choice – Bown – 2003 – Journal of Behavioral Decision Making – Wiley Online Library and Effects of number of alternatives on choice in humans – ScienceDirect
[iii] The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. – PsycNET (apa.org)
[iv] Recognizing behavioral needs – ScienceDirect
[v] When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? – PsycNET (apa.org)
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