Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Choose or Decide?

In an earlier blog, "Feed the Brain, File the Papers", I shared my new approach to tackling bothersome paperwork clean up - find something interesting to listen to while I work.  And this is how I came to hear Sheena Iyengar speak about Choice on Ted.com

Having just finished reading her book, I highly recommend it.  It's a great learning opportunity about how we view choice the world over, and particularly applicable to those in the field of marketing.

The book got me thinking about how business leaders (here in the US) use the word Choose versus Decide.  Using different language can shift the way we think about a situation or are perceived in a given situation.

As Sheena spells out in her book, for Americans, choice is a very important part of our definition of freedom and thus our history and identity.  Our connotation for choice is a positive one, perhaps even more so than in other cultures.  For us, lots of choice is good, little to no choice is bad.  Having lots of choice implies plenty of good options, meaning that they align to our preference, our style, our taste, or maybe just our mood du jour. 

Decisions incorporate the application of judgement which is likely why "decide" is more common in business language than "choose".   

Consider the following use of these words in specific business situations:

"I've decided to make Mike the lead on this project" - Manager speaking to the team
      The manager uses "decide" over "choose" in this instance because choosing could imply favoritism, or that there were several good and even equal options to select from, which may or may not have been the case. When the manager says they've decided, it's less likely to be put into question and sounds final. 

"I had no choice" - Manager speaking to the team about a layoff/downsizing
     Actually, the leader did have a choice to make - participate in the process and contribute to the final outcome, or opt out and let someone else make the call about who stays and who goes (but then, a true leader wouldn't take that second option, would they?).  This particular expression is not one I'd ever recommend a manager use because it weakens employee perception about that leader's authority and erodes confidence.  But I know why it happens - saying he/she chose a specific team member to be laid off feels too personal and goes against our concept of choice as a good thing.  And since judgement is applied in the selection process, we'd use the term decide rather than choose.  Additionally, HR and Legal implications factor in on the final outcome in a layoff, thus contributing to their sense that they had no "choice" in the matter.   

 "We'll need to decide on a strategy by the end of the quarter" - CEO to the senior leadership team
     Depending on where they are in the process, decide may actually mean develop, document, discuss, and then decide, but the focus is on getting to the results by a certain target date, so decide is used.  Choose is not used in this situation because strategy involves judgement as opposed to preference.

"I'd like your input before I make the final decision" - Leader to a trusted team member
     vs
"I'm trying to choose between these two, which do you recommend?" - Leader to the waiter at a business lunch
     Both statements indicate that the speaker is looking for more data, yet the language of the first first has more of a "the buck stops here" message.  The leader is asking the team member for input, but not asking them to make the final call.  During the business lunch, he/she is saying "I could go either way on this, which option (final outcome) would you pick?" under the assumption that the waiter has a good knowledge of the menu offerings. 

It's interesting to listen for when people use these words, choose and decide, and in business, it's important to understand how they are each perceived when spoken.

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