Graduate Management News
Q & A

Five Questions on Choosing for … Sheena Iyengar

Even straightforward decisions have multiple dimensions, as the act of choosing incorporates multiple disciplines, says Sheena Iyengar, one of the world’s leading experts on how and why we human beings make the choices that we make. The Inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, Iyengar is the author of The Art of Choosing, published in 2010, a nominee for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award. Her work has inspired Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, to observe that “no one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers." Iyengar will give a keynote speech at  GMAC’s 2011 Annual Conference June 22-24 in Boston. Graduate Management News caught up with her for this brief conversation.

Q.  You are considered one of the world's leading experts on choice. Can you briefly share how you got interested in that topic?

A.  I started formally studying choice when I was a PhD student at Stanford University. Conducting research on what we know about human motivation, I found that there were four central pillars: the need to achieve, a desire to fulfill one's curiosity, fulfillment of dreams, and the desire to engage in exercises in self-determination.

I was quite taken by the idea of self-determination and what was at the root of that. The idea of self-determination is a focus in different disciplines, such as political science, philosophy, economics, and psychology, but they all come at it from very different angles. At the same time, a growing field, judgment and decision-making, has developed in another part of psychology. That looked at all the ways in which we basically get decision-making wrong. I got interested in putting together both our desire to have choice and what choice would mean in our lives, as well as the practice of choice. If you look at my work, I have always pitted the meaning and value of choice against the practice of choosing.

Q.  Can you give us a sense of your current research?

A.  One line of study looks at cultural differences in the way that people react to choice. No matter where you go in the world, people are born with a unique desire to be in control. But the extent to which people will use choice and be empowered by choice is what culturally varies. Studying employees who all work within the same organization, for example, we find that even when people have the same job, they don't all see themselves as having the same amount of choice. Anglo-Americans think they have more choice than people from Asian countries, who in turn think they have more choice than people from Latin American countries. The critical difference isn't so much how many choices they think they have, but whether if having choice in their job actually affects their performance and their satisfaction.

Q.  Many of us feel that our lives and calendars have become too inundated these days with too much to do and too little time. Are there lessons from your work that individuals might use to better manage the choices they make?

A.  We can't do well at things if we are constantly reacting rather than being proactive. One of the things that I tell everybody, and I often do this as an exercise in class, is to tell them to jot down all the things that they're responsible for and the things they think are important to do. I tell them to make that list as long as they need to. Then I tell them to review that list very carefully, and cross off everything other than the top 1, 3, and 5 items – those are the things that you absolutely cannot live without. That should be your way of setting your priorities.

Q.  Looking at management education on a whole, are there any implications in your work for improving the business of business schools?

A.  I think that business schools need to spend time understanding what practitioners are saying about their needs. What are the one, three, and five big questions or problems that practitioners are struggling with, and to what extent have we equipped ourselves to help aid them? If we are not aiding them with that, that's a guide to how we might reform our curriculum.

Q.  Are there lessons in your research that could help top managers of business schools to become better leaders?

A.  I will actually be talking about leadership and choice at the GMAC conference. In particular, I will be talking about what we have learned about how leaders use choice to empower themselves and others around them. I will focus on a few key points. One is, how do you motivate people through choice? How do you empower people and make them feel a sense of self-determination? I will talk about this both from the American perspective as well as from a cross-cultural perspective. How do you create a global organization in which everyone is getting the kinds of choices that will most motivate them? When you decide to give people choice, how much choice should you give them? What is the optimal amount of choice to give them so that they are motivated, both from the perspective of employees and customers? I will also be talking about the big question of when you have to make a choice, how do you balance the desire to use reasoned analysis vs. gut?

My goal will be to get people thinking about the kinds of choices that they make, and about how they can get more out of choice in their everyday lives, both personally and professionally.

Click here to visit the home page
Click here to Read Our Archive