Why Do We Limit Our Options?

March 13, 2018

Why Do We Limit Our Options?

Why do we entertain so few options when confronted with a challenge? Why do we self-impose and accept limits? Limits constrain who we are and what we can achieve, while options unleash creativity and allow us to move beyond arbitrary boundaries so we can make thoughtful choices. My role as a coach is to help leaders expand their capacity to identify and evaluate options for a wide range of business, interpersonal, and personal situations. By seeing situations as limitless we can find new ways to persevere and flourish.

So, why do we set limits for ourselves and others? There are three possible explanations:

  1. The limits are “imposed” on us.
  2. It’s expedient to limit options.
  3. It feels safe to work within limits.

Let’s take a closer look at these three explanations and ways you can address them.

The limits are “imposed” on us
Why do we accept other’s limits? Rather than seeing options, we accept our lot in life. We believe:

  • It isn’t clear what is negotiable or changeable. It is common for leaders to confuse laws, policy, practices, and preferences and to act on them all as though they are fixed. Accepting organization rules as static stifles innovation and adaptability. To address this, invite, encourage, and protect efforts to challenge the status quo and generate new ideas in areas that aren’t in fact fixed. If you have a command-and-control culture, push decision making down by making the necessary structural changes to your organization. This also includes defining spans of control and implementing new processes for decision making and escalation.
  • We are unskilled and unpracticed in challenging assertively and/or cooperatively. Manage this by training leaders to use all modes of problem solving and conflict resolution. Encourage leaders to go for the win and fight the good fight when it is called for and to collaborate or compromise when appropriate. Make certain accommodating (capitulation) or competing (going for the win) aren’t the only methods employed. (See the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.)
  • We are more comfortable being a “victim.” The underlying feeling that comes across is that I am powerless. If we have options and can make a choice, we no longer can claim to be a victim. Power comes from owning the choices we make among the options we consider. Weakness comes from a lack of options: real or imagined. To break this behavior, recognize and reward initiative and those who pitch ideas and solutions over those who complain and spend their days pointing out what’s broken. Adopt the “yes, and” method of communicating to ensure ideas are built upon. Make challenging limits a rewarded and recognized virtue. Applaud efforts to solve new or even old problems with new approaches. Don’t let failures be demonized. Foster a positive, persistent, and productive work environment.

It’s expedient to limit options
Why do we think its expedient to work from a limited set of options?

  • We lack the fortitude required to think critically. In other words, we are lazy. It takes determination to consider options and the strengths, weaknesses, and potential outcomes tied to each. To build capabilities in optionality and critical thinking, encourage leaders to take the time to respond to your questions, challenges, or problems with a thoughtful answer or solution. Compelling others to “do their homework” is responsible. It makes it clear you expect a considerate response and one that can be acted upon with confidence.
  • We are impatient. We are tempted to act, because doing so makes us feel as though we are making progress, even if the action is not towards a clearly articulated goal or the accomplishment of a desired result. All of my clients tell me the pressure they are under to act with speed and certainty in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments. The need for speed is clear when you are trying to secure your position in the marketplace. Yet, sometimes demonstrating a bit of patience may result in seeing a payoff. Set expectations in your organization for acting swiftly, but smartly. Avoid a common error of setting overly aggressive and random deadlines for action when it’s not necessary.

It feels safe to work within limits
Why do we believe limits make us feel safe?

  • We need to feel we have some control. When so much of our work lives are uncertain, limits to the number of options available to us can help us feel more in control. Organizations need to establish some degree of control to avoid chaos. The challenge for us is to see how broadly or narrowly we define those limits to what, how, and where work is done, who does it and how they are compensated for the results. Are our limits and controls inhibiting our ability to grow and compete? What options have we not considered? Is the control we seek actually making us more vulnerable?
  • Limits create a sense of predictability. Predictable results are what Wall Street expects and what we hope to achieve. Surprises in quarterly results, even if positive, are not preferable. It makes sense, then that we might want to create limits to what we are willing to do, the risks we are willing to assume in order to deliver predictable results and go to work in a predictable environment. The danger in this belief or hope is that the market place and human beings are not entirely predictable. We can’t reliably predict economic, political, and environmental disruption and the impact it may have on our business. We similarly can’t predict who is going to make an unexpected demand on our time or what emergency is going to require our immediate attention. So, the only thing we can do is be nimble. Suffice to say, being nimble means we have a multitude of options, the means to quickly determine the best one to pursue and the strength and skill to execute under pressure.

Achievement in our own lives and in our businesses is the result of carefully identified, analyzed, selected, and acted upon options. The more deliberate we are in exploring those options and in making choices among them, the more likely it is we will achieve our goals.

The Authors: 

Sharon Margules, MA, CPC, ACC, is a certified professional executive coach and leadership development consultant at Margules Leadership Consulting. She can be reached at sharon@margulesleadershipconsulting.com.