Are You Giving Employees Too Many Green Choices?

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You might think that it's helpful to provide employees with dozens of tips to help them green their home and work. But some new research about decision-making suggests that offering fewer choices may be the better option. 

In a recent Fast Company article, Your Choice Of Paper Towels Shouldn't Cause An Existential Crisis, author Patrick Kayser recounts his personal story of having too many choices of paper towels at the supermarket. His research has uncovered some interesting findings about how people make decisions:

Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More, maintains that too much choice can lead to the paralysis of decision making. He cites a study where the more options employees had in choosing their 401k plan, the less likely they were to actually make a choice--often leaving up to $5,000 of free company matching on the table. 

Now apply that thinking to your sustainability program--and specifically to initiatives in which you encourage employee engagement. Is it possible that people are feeling overwhelmed by the options and instead choose to do nothing? What would happen if you narrowed down the sustainability-related programs to the top three company priorities, and asked people to join one? 

Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, conducted a study featuring free samples of jam in a supermarket. Every few hours, she would switch her offering of jam from 6 samples to 24. 60% of all visitors were drawn to the larger assortment of jams, but they were significantly less likely to actually purchase jam. Iyengar’s study found that only 3% of people who visited the larger assortment of jams bought a bottle--whereas 30% of visitors to the smaller assortment ended up making a purchase. 

We've actually written about this study before, and what it means for green programs at work. Essentially, the more specific you can be in focusing your sustainability priorities, the more likely it is that you'll get employee participation. And by focusing on fewer programs, you'll have more time and resources to take those programs to the next level.

Schwartz goes on to paint an even bleaker picture for marketers. He holds that the abundance of choice causes us to dislike whatever it is we do end up choosing because of the opportunity cost associated with the other options. So, if we can break through the paralysis that too much choice presents us and actually buy something, there is a good chance we won’t like whatever it is we bought because we’ll be dreaming about how great the other options could have been? 

Ack! You don't want employees feeling disappointed with their green decisions, or wondering if they should have chosen something better. (Notice we are carefully avoiding any reference to the grass being "greener" on the other side). Instead, reduce your employee-led sustainability programs and make sure that you do a terrific job at capturing each one's winning stories, awesome metrics, and audacious goals. You'll make it easier to demonstrate the value of each program, and keep employees motivated to do more. 

Did you like this article? Follow SSC President Jennifer Woofter on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter), where she tweets about employee engagement strategies that work for sustainability-minded companies. Want a more meaty bite on the topic? Download our white paper on Engaging Employees in the Company's Sustainability.