The psychology of simple and why it should matter to managers

Around half my time is spent working with leaders, either individually or with teams. My job is to help them think a bit more clearly, develop a plan and head in the right direction for them. One of the things I often find that can get in the way is a tendency to over-complicate things. Whether that’s overthinking and hence, over-complicating a relationship with a colleague; or over-complicating the development of a new product or service; or over-complicating the priorities and how these should be measured.

And hey, I’ve been as guilty of this as the next person – sometimes disappearing down a rabbit hole of my own making!

Therefore, I was interested to come across George Whitesides’ Psychology of Simple in a book I read earlier this year. The book was called Company of One, by Paul Jarvis, for those interested and is all about the power of keeping things small and simple. While the book is mainly aimed at small business owners, it has heaps of helpful advice for managers and leaders inside large organisations. In fact, Paul has a chapter specifically devoted to those folk.

Whitesides is a chemist and professor at Harvard University. He is a keen advocate of keeping things simple and suggests, the psychology of simple is made up of three elements:

  1. Predictability – easy to understand
  2. Accessibility – open, honest and backed up with research
  3. Serve as a building block – builds on existing and understood concepts

Simplicity, or a lack of, impacts many aspects of organisational life:


Complexity is using 5000 words when 50 will do; or using unnecessarily complicated language and jargon. Heed Professor Bob Sutton’s words when you communicate to your team:

“Smart talkers have considerable incentive for saying things that are incomprehensible. Unfortunately, people who spew out incomprehensible ‘jargon monoxide’ are rated as smarter than those who use simple words”


One of the activities I get participants to do on my High Performing Team course is to first, come up with one simple sentence that describes their team’s purpose. Many people struggle with this, coming up with long, confusing and easy-to-forget statements. When I ask people if their teams would be able to repeat to me, word for word, the statement they’ve come up with, most admit that their staff probably wouldn’t. And if people aren’t clear and aligned on a simple purpose, then there is a danger they’ll each go off and do their own thing which makes sense to them.

We then look at key priorities. The emphasis being on ‘key’. Many managers I work with often have more than 10 ‘key’ priorities, with one person I worked with having 25! Too many priorities would suggest that there has been no real prioritisation. And where there are too many goals, this can confusion, complexity, stress and in some instances, stasis. As Daniel Coyle says,

“Creating engagement around a clear, simple set of priorities can function as a lighthouse, orienting behavior and providing a path toward a goal”


Again, lots of well-meaning managers I work with over-complicate showing appreciation and kindness. Often they mention things like official corporate award schemes, or they worry about being seen as unfair if they do something nice for one member of the team and not everyone else. The simplest thing managers can do is to hone their judgement and common sense when it comes to acts of kindness. As one HR Director I worked with a long time ago said, “Good management is about being kind and not relying on policy or process. If it feels like the right thing to do, it most likely is.” Monica Worline and Jane Dutton build on this when they say,

“…if it turns out that simple acts of everyday kindness can send ripple effects of wellbeing through society, then promoting and facilitating that has to be a constructive pursuit”


One of the traps I’ve seen many organisations fall into is to offer their employees too much choice, particularly when engaging with people during organisational change. This comes from a good place – most of the time. However, while choice can offer freedom and autonomy, too much can lead to overwhelm and stress.

A recent study, published in Biological Psychology, found  that when people are faced with more choices than they can effectively consider they want to make a good decision, but feel unable to do so. While previous research clearly establishes how too much choice is associated with negative outcomes, this new research looks  at two understudied motivational factors: how valuable is the decision to the person and to what extent do people view themselves as capable of making a good choice. This is why I’ve always stuck with the rule of three – no more than three choices – which I’ve found has pretty much worked.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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