The option to abandon a project might just strengthen your resolve to complete it, according to a study published in Psychological Science.
The study, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvanis and Georgia State University, is detailed at the Association of Psychological Science's Minds for Business blog. It explored how people responded when given the option to complete a task as opposed to being required to do so.
Researchers Rom Schrift and Jeffrey Parker's subjects were asked to complete a word-search puzzle and told they could win a prize based on their performance. The rub: Some participants were allowed to opt out of doing the puzzle.
Those who were given the option not to participate not only spent more time on the puzzle, they performed better on it.
The researchers suggested that the power of choice played a role in the results. When people are reminded that they decided to take on a task or project, they might feel as though they need to double down in the face of difficulty.
The findings may help guide your actions as a leader. You might consider, when you can afford to do so, asking employees if they would like to participate in a new initiative. The study suggests that allowing them to opt in could ultimately result in higher productivity and persistence. Of course, if nobody says yes, then you have a problem--so you should use this tactic strategically (such as for projects that you know people will be excited about).
The findings might also help you realize when it's time to give up on a project. While the study indicates that people work harder when they know they can leave something behind, it sounds a little less surprising when you give that statement an alternative reading: that it is more difficult to abandon a task you chose. Letting go of pet projects is difficult, but you might find it a little easier if you're aware of this bias.