The Paradox of Choice: The Psychological Implications of Decision-Making in the Workplace

June 11, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-decisionmaking

On any given day, we are faced with multiple choices in life, from what to eat for breakfast to important decisions that we need to make at work and at home. Decision-making and making the right decision can be extremely important, and we value people who are able to make fast, firm, and correct decisions, often promoting them to leadership positions in large part due to their decision-making skills.

However, making the right decision can depend on several factors, not least having the right conditions. Without these, decision-making is impacted, and it can also have longer-term consequences, for example, on our mental health. 

We all know what it is like to make a decision in a pressured environment – consider the moment you are shouting at the TV during a game show when the answer is obvious, but the poor competitor cannot recall the answer. The cognitive demands placed on us when we are faced with pressurised situations mean it can be harder to give the appropriate brain energy and resources to focus on the task and decision at hand. As such, if we are faced with too many choices (consider the ‘kid in a sweetshop analogy’) then making a decision from hundreds becomes harder than choosing between three choices. 

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman suggested that we have two systems that play a role in decision-making. The first is based on intuition and is largely unconscious, while the second is more rational and logical. Both processes are important, and we use both in our everyday lives. 

However, the more decisions we make whilst less time and resources we have to make them, the harder it is to devote the correct energy and resources to decision-making. This can also result in ‘decision fatigue’, which is associated with procrastination, avoidance, indecision, and stress. 

Stress evolved as a biological response to keep us safe – meaning that when faced with a threat, such as a wild animal, we can direct energy (adrenaline) to our muscles to run away. Today’s threats are things like decision-making and our workload – but our stress response remains the same. Such a biological response means it can be harder to take the time to rationalise. In Kahneman’s terms, this means that we can lack the ability to override basic desires, and we opt for the easiest or simplest option. This has clear consequences for the individual and the organisation in both the short and long term. 

However, there is good news! Evidence shows that having autonomy at work is good and that employees who are supported in their decision-making and have autonomy to make choices are more satisfied. It comes down to demand and resource – if we are faced with too many decisions at once, and we lack the appropriate time and energy to devote to them, this can create stress and errors. It is important to ensure that employees and those managing them are not overloaded with decisions and that they have the appropriate resources to be able to make them. 

Practically, this can take the form of appropriate time, resources, and information. It is also important to ensure that the system is supportive, with managerial and colleague support and effective communication forums.

Supportive structures such as coaching and training can help employees feel empowered to prioritise decisions and delegate the right time and resources. It is also important to ensure that employees who may be experiencing stress and anxiety are offered wellbeing resources and information. 

Supporting employees with the right resources to make the right decisions is not only a supportive factor towards good mental health – but is also the right choice for employee productivity and retention. 

Zoe Fortune

Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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