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How ‘Choice Theory’ Can Bring Harmony to Your Organization

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By Meghdad Abbaszadegan

The American Institute of Stress reports the U.S. economy loses about $300 billion annually because of workplace stress. While some might think heavy workloads are responsible for much of that stress, a Danish study found unfair work environments and callous management attitudes are the chief causes of workplace depression.

Despite plenty of lip service about the importance of employee engagement, most corporate leaders do a terrible job of creating healthy workplaces. They try to control employee behavior rather than pay attention to what workers want, demanding respect without any effort to earn it. I’ve gleaned incredible insight from William Glasser’s Choice Theory, which helped me develop a better approach to leadership.

One of the core tenets of Choice Theory is that behavior is not separate from choice — we all choose how we behave at any moment. Likewise, we cannot control the behavior of anyone but ourselves. Glasser warns against relationships based on rigid controls and instead advocates for connections rooted in trust.

Rather than trying to control others’ behavior, Glasser suggests we develop seven caring habits: supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting and negotiating differences. These same qualities define the best managers, making a convincing case for why every executive could learn a few things from Choice Theory.

A different perspective


Glasser’s work differentiates itself from other management approaches because it can have a tangible effect on workplace quality and employee engagement. I’ve seen firsthand how powerful lessons from Choice Theory can be in the workplace.

Recently, a good friend of mine was struggling to get an employee to move to Phoenix. My friend wanted the employee to move because that’s where everyone else was located, but he was looking at the situation solely from his own perspective as a CEO. I saw an immediate parallel and introduced my friend to Glasser’s WDEP technique:


  • What do you want?

  • What direction are you going?

  • Evaluate whether your actions are taking you in the right direction.

  • Discuss, revise and refine your plan.

This paradigm shift allowed my friend to set aside his instincts to control the situation and instead understand the relocation issue from his hesitant employee’s perspective.

As I said earlier, other people can’t control us unless we allow them to. We always have a choice of how we feel, act and respond to situations. Managers certainly can use their authority to make an employee act — potential termination can be a significant motivator — but that employee still has the option to quit his job or not show up for work. Any action motivated by fear breeds unhappiness that has a way of worming its way through an entire organization.

My friend’s employee ultimately chose to move to Phoenix, and he felt genuinely enthusiastic about it rather than forced into something he didn’t want. How many managers can claim to accomplish goals without imposing their will?

Applying ‘theory’ to the workplace


Putting management theories into practice is notoriously tricky. It’s easy to see what you should do, but actually taking those steps is another matter entirely. Here are four ways Choice Theory can benefit any enterprise:

1. Stop being a boss. Start being a leader: Many leaders adopt a laissez-faire approach and only jump into action when problems emerge. Glasser draws a line in the sand between being “a boss” and what he terms a “lead manager.”

Lead managers persistently strive to create a non-coercive environment. By encouraging employees to self-evaluate, strive for greatness and talk through any trust issues, lead managers accomplish more with less prodding.

2. Understand your employees’ quality worlds: Glasser encourages managers to understand the "quality world" their employees occupy — the people they want to be with, the things they want to own or experience, and the concepts or belief systems that govern their behavior.

Hold a monthly meeting with employees to give them a chance to carefully consider the relationship of the company to their individual quality worlds. This simple step will help you foster engagement organically rather than through coercion.

3. Apply WDEP to solve problems: It’s easy to feel a compulsion to rush in and fix any problems that arise in a workplace, but you’re much better served to use WDEP to address underlying issues.

Encourage employees to think about what they want, what they are doing to achieve that goal, how they measure their progress, and whether they need to change their strategies in any way. This encourages employees to take ownership of problems and allows them to feel like important, empowered components of the organization.

4. Know your employees’ basic needs: Glasser claims every person has five basic needs that motivate all behavior: love and belonging, survival, power, freedom, and fun. Understand the substance of these needs, and use them as the foundation for a dynamic team.

For instance, pairing someone with a high need for survival with someone who has a high need for power can help both parties flourish naturally. Meanwhile, a team of two power-focused individuals can quickly dominate a workplace. Offer each employee an assessment of his needs to reveal the items that have a significant effect on his workplace performance.

The bottom line


If there’s any doubt that the concepts behind Choice Theory are needed in the workplace, consider a recent survey that showed a staggering disconnect in workplace communications. The study found that 84 percent of CEOs claim they never publicly reprimand employees, though 10 percent of employees and executives said they solely hear rebukes and recriminations.

Glasser has proven the way to close the gap is to inspire action rather than try to control outcomes. It’s a lesson we would all be wise to embrace.

Image credit: Pexels

Meghdad Abbaszadegan is an advisor with Coplex, a Los Angeles- and Phoenix-based startup studio focused on truly collaborative product design, development, and growth strategy. Coplex builds startups and digital products using lean and agile techniques. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, tennis, travel, and fostering connections between people. Follow Meghdad and Coplex on Twitter.

3p Contributor

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