Red pill or blue pill?
It sometimes seems like there are primarily two schools of thought surrounding choice. We either have full volition, or agency, over all our decisions and therefore, outcomes, or life happens to us regardless of what we do, so it is futile to attempt to shift our life’s direction. The question of free will has puzzled many for millennia. Esoteric, philosophical, and religious vantage points have been debated, with no clear agreement as to whether we ultimately have control over our choices and actions or not.
The Curse of Control
Many of us have experienced situations in which we wanted a certain outcome so badly, we became afraid to let go of what we perceived to be under our control. We probably know people (maybe ourselves) who are so uncomfortable giving up any semblance of control that they overcompensate by exerting as much control as they can throughout their lives. Sometimes, it may seem like control works. Our children do what we want them to do. Our employees do what we expect them to do.
Consider P, the manager who is so focused on achieving the Q2 sales numbers that in an effort to promote healthy competition, he posts everyone’s sales numbers by the hour, and if someone dips below the average, shares immediate feedback on what went wrong. For the first three days, his sales team step it up. Then the stress of needing to be “on” every minute starts to negatively impact engagement, a sense of ownership, and performance. The more P tries, the less motivated his sales team becomes.
Not surprisingly, eventually, reliance on overcontrol as a strategy backfires. A University of College London study that tracked individuals since the 1940s found that those with more controlling parents had lower levels of happiness and well-being, even into their 60s. Another study found that managers who over-monitor have employees who underperform. The cost of micromanagers may extend to low morale and productivity, as well as higher turnover and an increased chance of burnout.
Raising our self-awareness may not be foolproof, but it enables us to bring greater attention to how and why we choose to behave in the moment. Self-management also allows us to check ourselves and our actions.
The Curse of Avoidance
We probably have experienced moments during which no matter what we do, “that” just happened to us. “That” just took over. It therefore becomes the logical rationale to not take any action or make any decision. We probably know people (maybe ourselves) who are so fearful of making the wrong choice—whether out of fear of hurting someone else, of being honest with themselves, or even of becoming happy beyond their wildest imaginations—that they withdraw from life, eschewing responsibility for their actions and “let life happen to them.” Sometimes, it may seem like avoidance works. We fall into a job. We fall into a marriage and kids. Not surprisingly, eventually decision avoidance can backfire.
Consider F, the director who has been performing well at job, but has been unhappy in it for over ten years because he recognizes it’s not his passion. Yet he doesn’t want to disappoint his boss or his spouse for “quitting,” so year after year, he avoids making a decision, hoping that something will happen to “give” him permission pursue his dreams. Year after year, his performance is strong enough for him to be promoted again and again. To avoid making a tough decision, he accepts the promotions. Meanwhile, his unhappiness grows and encroaches upon his family life and sense of wellbeing.
Over half of U.S. employees are neither happy nor miserable at their jobs, and 13% are actively disengaged from their work (“meh,” “eh,” “ugh”). Those with tendencies for responsibility avoidance are less likely to become leaders. Higher conflict avoidance is also associated with greater marital stress.
A positive outlook can enrich our capacity to embrace the unknown with greater curiosity and less fear, allowing us to simultaneously take deliberate action while letting go.
Either way, whenever choice presents itself—as it does thousands and thousands of times a day—we face the sliding door phenomenon. What seem like teeny tiny choices can have a major impact. Bending down to tie a shoe can lead to a marriage. Pausing to cough can lead to a new job. Each decision—and inaction is a decision itself—sets in motion a whole series of events that themselves present more choices. Because of this, many of us get paralyzed by the decisions before us, and either try to control the unknown or run away from our own accountability with inaction.
Without debating what ultimate choice consists of, it is highly probable that both overcontrol and avoidance have unintended consequences. There is a fine balance between one’s own volition in action and inaction. While we cannot control other people’s thoughts and reactions, or what will unfold as a result, we do have the capacity to influence based on what we do or don’t do as well as what we say or don’t say.
Social awareness, including empathy, can help us to pause and consider other variables instead of crashing into the sliding door during a critical decision point. Cultivating awareness of our internal temperature, attending to a mindset of growth and possibility, and recognizing the commonalities of others may support us to find that balance.
How we approach the sliding door, and what comes after, is up to us.
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