Examining Why We Work Can Make Our Work Lives Better

By Rex Huppke
Chicago Tribune.

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and a deep and sensible surveyor of the things that make our workplaces tick.

But in a conversation about his new book, “Why We Work,” it was a simple and offhand comment he made that stuck with me.

We were talking about why, after decades of research showing what motivates people to work and what makes workers happy, more companies don’t take the simple steps necessary to create smart and smooth-running workplaces.

“It’s just common sense, for God’s sake,” Schwartz said.

He’s absolutely right, and his book, a concise 90-page treatise on work that should be required reading for every boss and manager, dissects the mistakes we’ve made since the early days of the Industrial Revolution and traces them to a misinterpretation of the work of Scottish economist Adam Smith.

In the book “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith wrote: “It is in the inherent interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner that authority will permit.”

In other words, the only reason we work is to make money. As Schwartz writes, “What Smith is telling us is that the only reason people do any kind of work is for the payoffs it produces. And as long as it produces adequate payoffs, what the work itself consists of doesn’t matter.”

He notes in his book that Smith’s views were actually more nuanced, but that subtlety was lost over time and people stuck with a belief that workers care about money and not about what they’re actually doing.

Thus, “a mode of work evolved in which all the other satisfactions that might come from it were neglected or eliminated. And so it came to be that all over the planet, people trudged off to work each day with little expectation of meaning, engagement, or challenge.”

Proof that this flawed model still prevails can be found in polling data that show an overwhelming number of American workers are dissatisfied with their jobs and don’t feel engaged at work.

Some of the key things missing, Schwartz suggests, are: a sense of meaning and purpose, or an understanding of how the work you do affects others or the world at large; a belief that your company trusts you and is willing to invest in your development; and a sense of autonomy, or at least a measure of discretion, in your day-to-day work.

That sounds easy to fix, but it doesn’t get fixed. Schwartz blames two things: “reluctance to relinquish control and a cynical, negative view of workers,” both of which stretch back to the “workers are only in it for the money” mindset that Smith’s work fostered.

“We expect the worst of everyone,” Schwartz said. “So we guard against the occasional slacker by making it impossible for anyone to be a slacker. We always go back to this default position. Part of it, I think, is that managers are terrified of the prospect of relinquishing control. If you’re going to create the kind of workplace that I envision, managers are going to have to back away and trust their employees.”

The book cited a study of hospital custodians and found that many viewed their jobs as being far outside the basic job description. They cleaned, yes, but they also talked to patients and patient families, they helped with an encouraging word when they could and viewed their work as a part of the hospital’s healing mission.

The value the custodians saw in their work could have easily been squashed by management that put rigid rules in place: no talking to patients; perform your cleaning schedule exactly as outlined. But given the room to work, the custodians made their jobs something more valuable, and subsequently took their jobs more seriously.

It’s what Schwartz calls the “vicious cycle” vs. the “virtuous cycle.”

He writes, “You take discretion, engagement and meaning out of work and people get less satisfaction from doing it. As they get less satisfaction from doing it, they do it less well. As they do it less well, their supervisors take even more discretion away.” That’s the vicious cycle.

In the virtuous cycle, “virtually every job that people do can be made meaningful by focusing on the way in which it improves the lives of customers, as long as it’s done right and done well.” People feel a sense of purpose, then you trust them to work hard and give them the autonomy to think for themselves, and good things happen.

This doesn’t cost money. All it requires is a willingness to step back and recognize that our default view of why people work is not accurate.

“If I’m right that good workplaces produce better workers, then people are costing themselves money by running workplaces the way they do,” Schwartz said. “For centuries, it’s just the hardest nut to crack.”

Which, when you really stop and think, is bizarre. We know, through research and our own understanding of each other, that workers want to be more than just cogs in a machine.

So why not make that happen? It is, as Schwartz said, just common sense.

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