Why Humans Need to Think it’s Our Idea

Do you like being told what to do?

Most of us don’t.  As humans, we want to feel in control of our own destiny, or at the very least, our day.  To thrive, we all need a sense of agency.  Without it, we’re powerless, flung about by the winds of chance or directed by whims of others.

When my younger daughter was five, we had an experience that shall forever be referred to as “The Christmas Tree Incident.”  We’d gone to a tree farm to cut our holiday tree.  Armed with the saw supplied by the farm, the four of us, my husband, myself, and our five and ten-year-old daughters trekked out across acres of pines, firs, and Leyland cypress to find the perfect tree.  After reviewing and rejecting several trees, we found it.  Or at least, my husband, myself, and our oldest daughter thought we had found it.  Our five-year-old said “No.”  It was shaped “funny.”  We put a measuring tape to the tree; it was the perfect size.  It was symmetrical.  But no, according to the five-year-old, it was totally unacceptable.

We did what any other overly indulgent parents would do; we kept looking.  We made a mental note of where the tree was, took her down a few other paths to disorient her and then found our way back to the perfect tree, only this time with the five-year-old in the lead.  She spied the tree, and pronounced it perfect, without realizing it was the exact same tree she had rejected ten minutes earlier.  We oohed and aahed, Dad bent down to cut the tree, and we hauled it home.  The entire drive home she kept saying, “Aren’t you glad we looked further?  The one I found was so much better.”  The entire rest of the holiday, she joyfully showed everyone the tree “she found.”

Our ten-year-old was in on the gig.  In a private conversation, she wisely said of her younger sister, “She needs to feel like she’s in charge of something.”  It’s no surprise the oldest went on to become an industrial psychologist.

The Christmas tree incident” illustrates some truisms in human nature.

Weather they’re five or fifty-five, people need to feel in charge of themselves.  If you want people to embrace something new, ask them to help you create it.  Instead of telling, ask.

This takes time and effort from leadership, but it pays off.  The extra ten minutes we spent walking around the tree farm gave us a great holiday with a proud five-year-old.  But employees aren’t five; they’re not going to be fooled by a few manipulative twists and turns.  As a leader you need to authentically engage them.

The tree incident also illustrates the very thing that impedes progress.  As humans, we often reject good ideas simply because we didn’t come up with them.  We’ve all known the boss whose employees have to dance around trying to make the boss feel like they’re the genius who comes up with everything.

A few years after the tree incident, I fessed up to my younger daughter.  I told her, “It’s fine when you’re five.  But as you grow, you don’t want to be the person whose ego is so fragile you can’t embrace good ideas from others.”

When someone feels their sense of agency threatened, they’re more likely to dig and reject anything that isn’t their own.  They’ll take control by simply saying no.

If you’re trying to get something done, put the team in the lead early on.  You’ll save yourself a few rounds around the Christmas tree farm.