What would make you happier at work? What would make you work harder?
The all-too-obvious answer is “more money,” or at least better perks and benefits. And in fact, that’s what many companies believe.
So says psychologist Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., whose new book, “Why We Work,” suggests that many companies are sucking the very soul out of work, making it virtually impossible to find either purpose or meaning. And in the process of soul-sucking, those companies may ultimately hurt their own performance.
Schwartz uses the American education system as a prime example of how organisations unwittingly deprive their employees of the chance to do their best work.
Talented teachers show up to classrooms and are given ultra-detailed lesson plans to follow every day — lesson plans that leave little to no room for creativity and autonomy. Essentially, teachers are instructed to “teach to the test,” or the standardised exam at the end of the school year. Their performance is measured — and their compensation determined — largely based on their students’ scores on those tests.
Schwartz calls this system “assembly-line education” and says that it’s “the antithesis of smart job design” and job performance.
“The most tragic consequence of this de-skilling,” he writes, “is that it will either drive the energy, engagement, and enthusiasm out of good teachers, or it will drive these good teachers out of education.”
Schwartz writes that the same phenomenon is seen in medicine and law as well. For example, law firms often use billable hours as a measure of hard work.
The real problem is that companies try to create “complete contracts,” as opposed to “incomplete contracts.” An incomplete contract is one which some job duties are specified, but may are not. So teachers know they have to help students learn, but it’s up to them to figure out the best way to coach each student.
Many organisations try to make contracts more complete by providing concrete incentives for specific behaviours, for example by telling teachers that they will get a bonus if their students score above a certain percentile on the standardised test.
But, Schwartz says, “when we lose confidence that people have the will to do the right thing, and we turn to incentives, we find that we get what we pay for.”
In other words, teachers teach to the test, so that test scores go up, but students don’t graduate knowing more. Lawyers may bill more hours without necessarily providing higher-quality legal service. Employees don’t do the best they can — they do what will be rewarded and nothing more.
If these incentives were removed, people would presumably be motivated instead by their desire to excel and to contribute to society.
As Schwartz writes, “There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work.”
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