Why We Work

Summary Written by Ingrid Urgolites
"If we want to help design a human nature that seeks and finds challenge, engagement, meaning, and satisfaction from work, we have to start building our way out of a deep hole that almost three centuries of misconceptions about human motivation and human nature have put us in, and help foster workplaces in which, challenge, engagement, meaning, and satisfaction are possible."

- Why We Work, page 10

The Big Idea

False ideas twist reality

"However, there are two things about idea technology that make it different from most ‘thing technology.’ First, because ideas are not objects, to be seen, purchased, and touched, they can suffuse through the culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. Second, ideas, unlike things, can have profound effects on people even if the ideas are false."- Why We Work, page 67

Nature will never create a Ferrari, and it would be extremely unlikely a play by Shakespeare would ever be written by the computer generating random characters. Ideas, like all inventions, are unique products of the human mind. Nature has a long process which is never complete for testing and tweaking its creations. Human brains work much faster, and we finish our inventions. We know when things made of physical parts don’t work. Ideas can be deceptive, and it’s hard to determine whether or not they work, we may believe them even when they are not true. Then we invent more theories based on the false ones. All ideas, true and false, shape our reality when we believe them.

Issac Newton performed experiments where he used a prism to split visible light into a spectrum. There were five distinct bands of color (red, yellow, green, blue, and violet) but he thought the spectrum should match the scale of seven notes. Newton added orange and indigo, which others identified as the mixing of two bands. Newton was an expert. He made a spurious connection between light and music, and we trusted him. We still see seven colors in a rainbow 300 years later. This example shows how a false idea becomes accepted as true.

Insight #1

Presume people work for more than a paycheck

"You start out believing that people are basically lazy, don’t want to work, and care only about their pay when they do. Based on this belief, you create a workplace that is focused only on efficiency, with jobs that are mindlessly repetitive, counting on the paycheck to motivate the workers. Lo and behold, in an environment like that, all that matters to workers is their pay."- Why We Work, page 75

If we begin by supposing our employees only work for a paycheck, it is necessary to have a structured work environment to keep them on task. Jobs are kept small, straightforward and monotonous to be completed efficiently with little skill or training. Supervision is hierarchical and punitive. Performance is over-measured, and employees are paid according to key performance statistics. Autonomous decisions made through discretion—even if they are in the best interest of the company—may measure against an employee. By believing people work only for pay, we create a work environment that validates that idea.

If we begin by assuming our employees work for richer rewards of meaning, discretion, engagement, autonomy, and opportunity to learn, we create satisfying work beyond a paycheck. Teams are decentralized and self-managed giving them freedom and choice. They provide extensive training with lots of opportunities to learn and master more complex jobs. They measure performance, but they don’t over measure. They trust employees to do their best work. They have a mission that is more than words, and a central goal employees believe in. They support employees as a team rather than individuals by providing pay and employment security above the standard without relying excessively on personal rewards.

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Insight #2

Realize employee ability and promote development

"They discovered that managers also seem to have either fixed or incremental theories of employee ability. If managers had a fixed theory of ability, they were less likely to notice changes in employee performance, and less likely to provide feedback and coaching aimed at improvement, than if they had an incremental theory of ability."- Why We Work, page 78

Schwartz mentions the work of Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset. She talks about how children achieve things differently depending on their goal. If their goal is performance (social recognition and rewards) they avoid challenges and give up when they fail in search of easier goals. Children with mastery goals (personal satisfaction of doing something well) work harder when they fail, so they learn more and become smarter. Not surprisingly, adults at work accomplish goals the same way.

Managers who have a fixed idea of employee ability create a declining work environment. They recognize and reward the good performers and don’t help poor performers improve. Performance scores become what is important, and employees learn how to reach the goal. When Mastery is not the goal, growth and learning are unimportant. Employee potential is ignored at considerable expense to the organization. Employees are left feeling unsatisfied with their work and work only for a paycheck.

Managers who foster improvement by providing additional training and support to employees, especially poor performers, create a growth mindset in the workplace. When managers encourage learning and tolerate error, employees feel valued and form a deeper connection to the work and the goals of the organization. They promote growth, not only personal satisfaction of their employees but growth in the company. Employees become engaged and productive instead of doing the minimum to reach a goal or giving up and moving on.

Even in the most structured and mechanized jobs, there are those employees who see beyond their job description and add challenges and variations to their work to create value and meaning while doing almost any job. They may challenge themselves to create quality human interactions or create beauty in other ways that are not intrinsic to the job. These people don’t believe that work should be done only for pay. There are also companies that have reexamined the accepted idea that job satisfaction should be the price of productivity. They allow for growth and learning, measure performance but emphasize good work, and compensate team members equally because everyone helps the organization, they value employees and their job. These individuals and organizations reject the idea that we work for pay and build value into their lives and their companies without sacrificing financial success. Our human nature defines not only who we are, but it shapes our world. Isn’t it worth changing our minds about why we work?

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Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action in the psychology department at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for thirty years. He is the author of several leading textbooks on the psychology of learning and memory, as well as a penetrating look at contemporary life, The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality, and Modern Life. Dr. Schwartz is married and has two children.

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