Being Told

You are 4 times more likely to commit to something you have chosen.

Scott Keller  (a director at McKinsey & Company) recently wrote an article for HBR [1] which summarises and builds on a very interesting experiment conducted and published back in the 80’s [2].  In this study 53 participants from two different companies thought they were participating in a run of the mill workplace lottery.   Participants were able to buy a ticket for $1,  each ticket had the name of a football player written on it.   It could have easily been random numbers but I suppose the theme aided in participation.   The twist in the experiment was that half of the group got to choose which card they wanted (the player they wanted).  Later each participant was told that someone else wanted to join in but there were no more tickets left.  They were asked how much they would sell for.   You can read the full details online [2] however their were two really key outcomes.  The participants that got to choose their cards;

  • were half as likely to want to sell at all, and
  • wanted on average 4 times more money (when convinced to give a price).

The same chapter in the book also quickly mentions why and has some more references for you if your interested.   The short version is;  for different reasons a lot of us are looking for control.  It makes sense when you think of it, even though we are told it’s a negative (being a control freak).    Some of us want to be the best, be superior, be competent or even just to feel some sense of control (not be controlled).



With friends and family


I am sure most parents would agree that kids won’t be forced to do anything.   The fine arts of bribery, blackmail or gentle force commonly get employed.  Finding ways to give kids choice often works well.  Even with my two year olds there is a clear difference in their level of cooperation when they are given a choice.   Naturally not everything is up to them though.


In non-obvious ways, choice is a highly effective method for working through difficult conversations or conflict.  Asking other people what they think removes the me vs. you aspect.   In the end most people know what is right, wrong or best for everyone.  Sometimes we think that unless we tell the other person they will never understand or do what I need them to do.  You will be surprised.


Outside of conflict, in just our normal journey, deliberately asking others opinions and preferences helps build stronger relationships.


At work


Scott also provides some good business examples.  I particularly liked IBM’s “ValuesJam”, a three day online forum in which 50,000 IBM employees each contributed to re-writing IBM’s dated value statements.   The organisation it must have took and cost IBM surely incurred to provide choice and ownership to it’s employees is astounding.   I know it makes me reconsider the extents that can be gone to.  Especially considering the difference providing choice makes.


But why now?   In the end, the reason we may not successfully provide people with choice probably has something to do with our own belief system.   Traditional approaches in society and business have always outlined ‘the law’.  And generations of people have been complying.    The people above you in the hierarchy should be implicitly trusted and followed right?


So why now?  In business, are we more aware of what drives performance?   Or is what drives performance changing?


I would say it is a lot of both.  The steady stream of leadership, communication and similar information out there clearly indicates some level of demand.   So in general people are more aware of ‘how people tick’ and look to extend that knowledge so they can be more successful and/or happier.


What drives performance has also changed  in recent times.   It’s funny to think that while the concept of providing choice is altruistic (for the group’s greater good), it is actually required because of what individuals are demanding for themselves.  Performance seems to be achieved by recognising each individual and meeting their needs.   Assuming aspects like hiring the right people etc have all been met.


Perhaps more so in business than anywhere else, at times we have a tendency to be arrogant.   That seems harsh but I have thought about this a lot and I can’t find any other way to describe it.  A belief system where someone in an organisation presumes to know more and be a better person than those below them by default.   This just doesn’t work anymore.  ‘We must tell our workers what are values are’ or ‘here is the code of conduct’ grates on employees today.   People want to have a say,  they want to have some control,  be considered and perhaps even be contributors to building something better.


1 – Scott Keller, HBR, 26th April 2012


2 – Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, Amos Tversky, May 1982, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, pg 236-238,

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