The Power of Choice

On one recent, rather untypical Monday afternoon, people across the country looked up at the sky and were mesmerized by that cosmic event called the solar eclipse. By all accounts, those who witnessed totality were totally awed by what they experienced. You just did not hear or see anyone using descriptions like OK or no big deal to describe it. Breathtaking, unbelievable, incredible, biblical – those were the types of comments flooding the airwaves. It was positively unforgettable for masses of people.

By the end of that same week, another unforgettable event took place. It was called Hurricane Harvey, and alliteration aside, turned Houston into a kind of hell. Not inches, but feet of rain fell day after day. There was water everywhere while more pouring endlessly out of the sky. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to have your home suddenly sitting in the middle of a dirty lake or raging river, with nothing but more rain on the horizon. Interesting enough, I heard this catastrophic force of nature described with similar words – unbelievable, incredible, even biblical. There had to have been people looking for the “ark,” regardless of any particular religious beliefs. . And as unforgettable as Harvey was, it was certainly not so in a positive sense, like the eclipse.

Both of these events were totally uncontrollable. As of now, no human can control the alignment of the planets, or the unpredictable patterns of weather. However, with the eclipse, people did have a lot of choice in the impact it had on them. People had much less, if any choice on the impact of Harvey.

Think about it. For many, solar eclipse day was just another Monday. The lights stayed lit, while work and life went on as usual. Others exercised a number of choices to make it a very memorable day indeed. They bought unique viewing glasses, traveled miles to special places, and endured massive traffic jams – all for the chance to take part of this magnificent event.

But the indescribable event of Harvey did not leave people much choice. They perhaps had some choice on trying to get away from the chaos, but absolutely no choice on the destruction awaiting them. No matter what people attempted to do to be proactive, the power went out, normal life ceased, their homes were flooded, and their treasures swept away. The label of “victims” of this storm was spot on. This devastating event happened to them. It was unfair, uncalled for, and occurred based on nothing they did. It just happened, and they were powerless to alter its impact on them.

Choice is a powerful force – outside and inside of work organizations. When people have no choice in outcomes that directly affect them, they feel powerless and victimized. And in all my years of work with great teams and top performers, I have never heard these two characteristics used to define greatness.

As a Leader, you must be intentional about providing people choices, even when it seems there are few. Big challenges and problems occur every day that dramatically impact peoples’ careers and personal lives. They may have little control over the hand they have been dealt, but you can provide them the freedom to consider choices on how to play their cards.

There are a couple of important points about providing choice. First, be honest, not manipulative. If a decision has already been made, don’t tell others that they have a say, if they really don’t. You may want to appear as if you are a considerate, inclusive leader by giving people a voice, but you are only misleading them. Be truthful.

Next, remind people that asking for help is usually a choice as well. Coach others to get over the misguided idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness. There are times when you as an individual cannot possibly take care of everything on your plate. Letting something fall through the crack is nor the only answer. Ask for help and more solid alternatives will appear.

And finally, reinforce for people that they always have at least one choice in any circumstance, and that is the choice on how they will respond. It may not seem like much, but it can be very helpful. In situations where others seem to have little choice, try being compassionate and supportive of them, and help them think about options. Encourage action-focused thinking and help them resist the desire to simply throw up their arms in total hopelessness.

For as bad as the devastation was in Houston and other Gulf coast areas, there were uncountable examples of acceptance and resilience. The attitude was “what is, is, so now what can we do to move forward.” That was a real choice, and maybe the only one available, after having a large portion of their lives completely upended.  BTW, I call that kind of spirit unbelievable, even incredible.

Always be mindful that you have an enormous amount of choices in how you can serve and help those who need you, whether Harvey storm victims, colleagues at work, or people in your own backyard. You are never powerless to provide leadership.

Lead On.

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