Your newborn child was seriously injured at birth. You must decide whether to take him or her off life support knowing that in the unlikely case it survives, it will be in a persistent vegetative state for the few short hours to months he or she may live. In the US, parents make the choice; in France, the doctor’s do. A study found that US parents remained far more distressed and depressed a year later than did French parents. Said one US mother “I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”
This being but a circuitous introduction to a follow up to Are you a good customer, I watched a TED talk by Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing. By way of introduction, she’s the Psycho-economist who proved that consumers buy less stuff if given too many choices (the famous jam experiment). Fewer people browse booths with more limited selections but they buy more resulting in a net gain over their more broadly stocked competitor.
In the talk (transcript), Sheena explains that the concept of freedom to choose is culturally determined and varies widely. In the US:
First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.”
I doubt many disagree with that; she continues:
The second assumption [of] the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.
Research doesn’t bear this out, quite the opposite. The more choices one has, the poorer decisions they make.
But let’s move on to what inspired this entry; whether you should even want to make all of your decisions and why some people stubbornly insist on getting in your way if you do because they are trying to keep you from becoming a “bad customer” (meaning, you either are doing something you should not or you’re doing something that makes things difficult for someone else). She uses a funny example of trying to order sugar to accompany her green tea in Japan. Her request was politely refused, twice; the manager finally said they had no sugar. So she ordered coffee -which came with two little sugar packets on the side.
Point is, the Japanese server was trying to prevent her from making a “bad” decision; they don’t put sugar in green tea in Japan. It was a conflict between norms of two cultures and we (here) probably agree her wishes should have prevailed because it really didn’t matter, sugar wasn’t going to undermine the customer, the restaurant or civilization as we know it. But what if it did? Not sugar of course, but something else. Sheena continues -this should be bronzed:
The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others. When …two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently, might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships. Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating. But it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.
Redux: You want to make decisions that only affect you, have at it. But, if your decision impacts other people, they’re going to feel entitled to say something about it. Everyone can relate to that.
What makes it difficult for some people to progress in their ventures are two core problems related to decision making. The first is that they take for granted that they must make the decision independently in accordance with the cultural norms to which they’ve become accustomed. That’s what entrepreneurs do. What kind of business person are you if you can’t make decisions? That’s what we tell ourselves. But who says? You have the freedom to decide to let someone else help you sort it out. CEOs do it every day. They’re better than you because they have better advisers.
A second block to good decision making is rooted in consumer culture, the concept of consumer “rights”. This is the assumption that because one has some money to spend and can make a decision where to put it, that they are a customer and they are empowered to make the best choice for themselves. The reality is, no shirt, no shoes, no service; no one becomes a customer until the vendor agrees to accept the transaction and perhaps, its negotiated conditions of sale. It is a matter of debate as to whether the customer is always right but it is indisputable that you’ll never be right if you’re not a customer. The kind of person or service you want to hire is often the person who won’t blithely do as you ask because if you fail, they look bad for letting you do it. The one thing you can be very sure of is that a person who will do whatever you want, is never going to be a good adviser to you. They’ll settle for which ever way the wind blows and bail at the first sign of trouble.
Try letting go a little. Here’s an easy one: when I go to a restaurant and order a salad, the server rattles off a list of salad dressing choices, most of them sound equally appealing. I usually ask the server which is their favorite. If they grin a bit shyly when they tell me, that’s the one I order. It’s never not worked out -and it establishes trust and rapport with the server. Allowing others to help you make decisions is empowering. A server is going to feel terrible if you don’t like the dressing and bring you another salad. They will feel responsible if they had any hand in leading you astray. I do this all the time (such as asking a carpenter how he’d do it if this were his home) and because it often throws the other party off guard, you get a good answer. The other party won’t hit the mark 100% all of the time but it’s rarely fatal either. It really is quite liberating and leaves you time to worry about more important things.