Leaders are defined almost solely by what they do. What they know, how they think, what they believe, how they view the world–these are indispensable elements of the core identity on which their leadership is based. But at the end of the day, their actions are what really matter, and action is always an expression of choice.
Leaders, many of them natural-born deciders, are well acquainted with choice. Almost all recognize that choices, sometimes difficult ones, are a defining responsibility of their position. Yet leaders, from CEOs to front-line managers, almost always underestimate the sheer volume and range of meaningful choice points they face every day–instances where they not only could make a choice but where they do make one, whether they realize it or not. Gaining a greater awareness of these choice points enables leaders not only to better control the impact of their decisions but ultimately build more efficient and effective organizations.
Obvious and Subtle Choices
All of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, tend to conceive of choice in a very particular way. Culturally accustomed to either/or dichotomies, we frame choice as a selection between mutually exclusive options. We can stay or we can go; we can have the soup or the salad; we can see the thriller, the comedy or the romance–but only one and only within certain parameters. This type of thinking, grounded in the reality of daily experience, is not inaccurate, nor is it the whole story.
Choosing between discreet options is one type of decision, but the great majority of choices we face are not between one “something” and another, but between a something and a nothing, between action and inaction. You, as a leader, could comment on an employee’s recent job performance or you could not. You could step out of your office when you hear a commotion in the hallway or ignore it. You could take a stroll around the factory floor or you could not. These decisions are optional and voluntary rather than forced by external events.
Because choosing inaction often has little obvious fallout, these subtle choices can slip below a leader’s radar. All too easily we pass a day on the “autopilot” of habit and never consider that sticking to a well-worn routine is a choice itself (many choices, in fact). But, to build outstanding organizations, leaders must realize that offices and departments are defined just as much by the things they choose not to do as the things they actually execute.
The Impact of Little Choices
Think back over your career and some of the work-related choices you have made. Chances are the examples that came to mind were conspicuous or high profile. These larger kinds of decisions are the ones that tend to stick out in our memory, and because of this, they are also the ones that receive the bulk of our attention going forward. However, for all their impact, those situations are relatively rare, and the many smaller choices filling an average day are arguably more important in determining organizational performance.
If this seems counterintuitive, just look to your own work experience. You might remember decisions your boss made during a tumultuous merger or threatening round of cutbacks a year or two ago. Those decisions might still color your opinion of him. But your working relationship today depends far more on the routine behavior that has filled the days and months since, the accumulated impact of your boss’s countless everyday choices. Does he regularly welcome your questions or dismiss them? Does he involve you in decisions or shut you out? Is he attentive or distant? Upbeat or sour? Encouraging or critical?
These daily interactions are what determine the environment in which you work, and, to a large extent, also determine how effectively you can do your job. And just as your boss’s routine choices impact the productivity you achieve, the thousands of tiny choices you will make today and tomorrow shape the performance of the employees you supervise, for better or worse.
Of the almost infinite variety of choice points leaders face in a day, some of the most important are those involving interactions with other people. Business is a fundamentally human endeavor. People design products, people produce them, people market them, and people buy them. As a result, creating productive relationships is one of the central functions of leadership.
But, being human, leaders themselves can sometimes become enmeshed in unproductive or adversarial relationships. Perhaps it is the subordinate who doesn’t seem to take coaching constructively. Maybe it is the fellow department head who always seems ready to butt heads. Or, it might be the executive with whom communication always seems unclear. Such relationships are not only personally draining, they are detrimental to organizational health and productivity. Luckily, such patterns of interaction are not set in stone. Any relationship is only one choice away from moving in a more positive direction.
Choices aimed at building more productive working relationships can target formal “business” interactions but should not be limited to them. Most leaders greatly underestimate the influence of casual, informal exchanges. Every time a leader passes an employee in a hallway, she faces a choice point. Every time she sees workers in the parking lot, at the coffee machine or in the cafeteria, she faces decisions that carry very real consequences. The choice of whether to smile, nod, frown, look away, pull out her phone, stop to chat or anything else might seem trivial from her point of view. But to the subordinates who report to her, it matters a great deal, and those kinds choices therefore have significant bearing on employee morale, involvement, ownership and motivation.
Some of the most accessible and perhaps most profound choice-points we face–those over which we have the most immediate power to effect change–are our own reactions. These reactions, particularly less positive ones, can seem as good as hardwired within us: “This person just rubs me the wrong way,” or “This situation always makes me feel inept or incompetent.” Yet, ingrained as these responses may feel, we always retain the utmost freedom to choose our reactions to any external event.
Is this idea simple, even elementary? Of course. But it exerts considerable power nonetheless. Consider the difference between a CEO who blows his top on being notified of a problem, and another who calmly gathers the facts in spite of his anger and frustration. How does this simple difference impact the functioning of their organizations? How does it affect the kinds of information they receive, their organizations’ ability to learn from mistakes, their employees’ willingness to stretch their limits and take risks?
The answers are clear, but their effects are not limited to senior executives. All supervisors influence the behavior of their subordinates, and the way you, as a leader, respond to daily events–achievements, mistakes, successes and challenges–sets a tone that will shape the decisions of everyone you lead.
An Act of Mindfulness
Choice points can transform workplace dynamics, but remaining aware of them is no small challenge. Particularly when viewpoints clash and tempers flare, people tend to stop thinking and start simply reacting. It is a natural human tendency, but one that needlessly squanders the power inherent in our capacity for choice.
To more fully utilize the wealth of options available to you as a leader, imagine a sumptuous buffet filled with dishes and platters of every size and description. This buffet fills the room, but instead of being covered with food, it is overflowing with choices–with every possible response to any imaginable situation. This “buffet of choice” is your constant companion, and every time you respond to any external stimulus, you are picking something off the table. Maybe you pick “smile politely and tune out.” Maybe you pour a glassful of “lend a hand where I can.” Maybe, as one of our close associates said she did during a strained exchange with a coworker, you reach out and fill your plate with a heaping serving of “get pissed off.” Regardless of what you pick, you never leave the buffet empty-handed.
The metaphor is a simple one, but it highlights two elements that are central to unlocking the power of choice points: mindfulness and will. Leaders must first become mindful of the many opportunities for choice presented by daily interactions (a prospect much more easily said than done). They must remain aware of their many options–the vast spread waiting on the buffet–and recognize their power to choose from among them. But then they must also exercise the volition to actually make the productive choices available to them. They must act on what they know to have any effect.
The Challenge of Choice
The question is not how to make good choices. We all know how to do that already, and if we don’t, formal “training” and “instruction” are certainly not going to help. Rather, the real issue is becoming aware of the many choices we are making every day, and exerting the effort to nudge those choices in more positive directions.
Making consistently productive choices is a deceptively challenging form of self-mastery. Choosing to advance a greater good even when one is angry, sick, frustrated, tired, or indignant takes attention and commitment. It is work in the truest sense of the word. But organizations are only as good as the choices of their leaders, and only by putting forth this kind of effort do leaders consistently choose the excellence needed to bring about their vision of a preferred future.
Mark Scheffer and Alan Scheffer are senior consultants for Management Associates, an organizational development firm. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.