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The Gift of Choice

How to Migrate from Mandates to Meaning

A setting sun peaked gently through parted kitchen curtains illuminating what remained of the evening’s culinary creations. And yet the mood wafting from the chipped china was something less serene.

Just over the horizon of a browning banana, two sets of eyes locked in a daring duel. A stare down that rivaled a John Wayne Western ensued. Each daring the other to blink, flinch or simply surrender.

And then a shot at point blank range. A shoot to kill order designed to hit the mark.

“You will sit there until you finish everything on your plate.”

Have you ever noticed the resistance movement a picky eater will mount against a pushy parent? It’s a battle to behold. What fascinates me is how seemingly meaningless mandates evoke the same reaction in picky eaters as in powerful professionals.

“You. Can’t. Make. Me!”

How do you feel when someone tells you what to do? Whether that’s a mandatory meeting, return to the office policy or dinner decision, we all prefer meaning to mandates. And choices to constraints.

Consider the story of General Mills. [Source: ]. The cereal maker was in a predicament in the fall of 2020. The pandemic was in full swing, and pulse surveys of the employees showed noticeable signs of fatigue. People were working overtime, forgetting about vacations, and morale was low. Human Resources monitored the situation, and the situation wasn’t good. Leadership stepped in with a special offer: an extra day off.

That would increase well-being, right? That day off would help a burnt-out workforce to recharge, right? The company would recharge, so employees wouldn’t feel half-baked. Or ready to toss their cookies. Right? Wrong. And not just because of the bad baking puns.

The uptake on the paid time off (PTO) was low. After all, the leaders reasoned, maybe people saw taking time off as a lack of dedication, or something that they just couldn’t do to the team. So, the leaders cooked up something new. They decided to add one critical ingredient to the recipe.

In January 2021, General Mills rolled out the Gift of Choice (that was the name of the program) to nearly 10,000 employees. The Gift of Choice provided what was missing—options.

Employees could now choose between a cash bonus, paid time off or a donation to a favorite charity. 39% of respondents chose the dollars. But get this: when offered a choice, the number one choice was paid time off. Unbelievable! And yet, it’s true: 59% of respondents took a day to decompress. The vast majority did what none would do—until they were offered a choice. PS: The remainder donated to a variety of nonprofits and social causes.

Offering time off was a challenge; providing choices was what opened up possibilities. The data collected shows that choice leads to possibility. Or, as Ted Lasso says, “Every choice is a chance.” Give people a chance to decide for themselves among options and see what kinds of results you can derive. Those options must be viewed as positive and favorable by the choosers—in this case, the employees. The brain psychology at work here? Being offered an unexpected set of choices you view as enticing, interesting and favorable. If you’re facilitating this exercise, maybe consider that the Forbes article by David Rock is required reading.

How to Give the Gift of Choice to Your Organization:

  • Find a challenge inside your organization: an area where choices could lead to new chances. The big play here might just be the option to return to the office or remain working at home.

  • Look at edicts and top-down initiatives: how can you challenge the status quo in a way that doesn’t jeopardize profitability, or productivity? Notice that, in the General Mills story, each of the options was approximately equal in terms of the cost to the organization.

  • Crowdsource Choices: invite employees to share ideas about the challenge that could create choices. What options lead to flexibility, in a way that’s non-threatening?

  • Consider Controls: What could happen if there was less of an emphasis on micromanagement, and more of a focus on outcomes? Not saying that’s possible in your organization! But I am saying that, in this game, anything is possible. Giving the gift of choice means finding ways to make the impossible possible. What would happen, for example, if senior leadership took a fresh look at the controls that the company really needs? Always look in the direction of mutual benefit. Because if someone has to suffer in order for you to win, you’re not really winning. This Gift of Choice game is a true team sport—you have to assist your teammates, and your organization, so that everyone wins.

  • Take it to the team: Notice how teams can tackle the same issue in different ways - because there’s always more than one way to win. Consider creating team agreements using a consistent template that allow each team to choose what works best for their operating context.

What else shows up? Tackle any challenge you choose, by introducing choice.

What looks fixed but could actually be fluid? What seems set but needs some selection? Look for ways to provide what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: the feeling that you are able to influence and guide your destiny, finding some agency for yourself inside of choices.

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