Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk about choice shows that we have some assumptions about choice. A common assumption in America is that when one chooses for oneself, things are better.
She describes research that shows American children generally did much better on a test when they chose which test to take, and which pen to use. But children from an Eastern country generally did much better when they were told which test to take, either by a parent or a teacher.
This reminds me of a time I organized a democratic meeting. The issue was that one of the company’s websites had too much downtime (the website sometimes didn’t work), and no one had a definite answer why. The manager was blaming the IT guys, who kept changing their reasons. Sometimes the data couldn’t be entered to upload new products. Too often, customers couldn’t view the website. There was talk of doing expensive things to fix it. No one knew whether that would make a difference, and no one was happy.
I asked the IT manager, the IT guy who was doing the hands-on work, the website manager, and the woman who did data entry to be in the meeting. I facilitated.
The meeting was ‘democratic’ in that we agreed, going in, that we would come to a decision together, and agree what the issue was and what to do next. We had been delegated within the organization; this was our responsibility.
We resolved the issue by being in the same room, talking about what was actually happening, the triggers we had observed, what had been looked at as possible causes, what the actual downtime was and how that compared to other sites. We ended up with some action items for the IT guy who was doing the hands-on work to research further, but we all agreed that it wasn’t as big an issue as some of us had thought it was, and that we could relax.
Afterwards, the woman who did data entry walked up to me. She was angry and embarrassed. “Why did you make me be in that meeting?” she said. “I thought you could share your point of view, maybe you noticed things entering data that would help us figure out when the servers went down, and that it would be good for you to help make decisions about what we should do,” I said.
Maria was in college, studying industrial psychology. But she was furious at me. “I don’t make decisions here,” she said. “That’s not what I do.”
Maria had probably not understood most of the technical talk; I hadn’t understood a lot of it; that was part of the reason why I thought it would be good for us to be in the same room, to walk through what was happening.
Maria was the only woman in a team of men (and a company of almost all men).
Maria was rarely if ever asked for her opinion on anything; she was told what to do.
She expected to be told what to do. And I had been too quick to ask her to be part of a situation where she could share to decide what she and a group of her co-workers would do.
I don’t regret it though. I think that new expectations about one’s role at work can be difficult to create.
Maybe performance on a test will be lower at first if you are expected to do the test chosen for you, and now you are being asked to choose. Maybe Maria was now faced with uncertainty of whether the data entry she was doing could be done in a more efficient or more fun or more something way.
To those who say that she’s a ‘cog in the wheel’, a station on the assembly line, doing her task while others do theirs, I tell you that she was emailing, texting, talking, doing various things unrelated to work and related to bonding with her co-workers who also ‘wasted’ two or more hours each day, while being yelled at once in awhile. Typing slowly and interrupting herself while she worked.
I do judge, but I judge her work situation to say that if she was regularly expected to choose for herself at work, she would have focused on the work, it would have become personally satisfying, and she would have got more done while having more fun. I’ve seen it happen many times, and written about it in other writings.
But that creativity doesn’t happen on the first try, especially when everyone else around you sticks by their original expectations that you should be told what to do. Which is why I think something like a constitution is needed at more companies, something that states responsibilities and limits, like a usability design for decisions within the company, a design which is itself analysed for usability, and updated through its own process.
It’s called a constitution, and it can be amended, and it lays out some principles and processes much simpler and shorter than most office manuals. Yet it does ask you to think about how and why you do what you do.
My background is in theater, and this all makes obvious sense to my friends from theater… we learned that there is a script for a play, and the script is playfully written. It does not say everything that happens on stage. It has some words, and you interpret the rest. You rehearse with co-workers. Your actions and words are the task, but you rehearse together, and there is a joy, and a productivity, in the process. When an acting partner interprets a line differently, you react in the moment, within certain limits. There is, after all, a script. It does need to be read, and understood, and within its limits are many choices. Its limits can be adapted: lines can be removed or added, the blocking of where to stand on stage can be decided and committed to. And this infinite game is freedom.