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Author and Professor Barry Schwartz on meaning and work

June 20, 2019 — Written by Liz Fosslien

According to Gallup research, the percentage of “engaged” workers among the U.S. working population has remained at around 30% since the firm invented—and began tracking—this metric in 2000. Globally, that number hovers around 15%.

Why is engagement so low? And why, after decades of work by organizations big and small to improve it, has the statistic failed to budge an inch? Is there anything forward-thinking leaders and workers can do to heel happier and more fulfilled?

Enter the psychologist Barry Schwartz. Barry was a professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College for over forty years and is the best-selling author of books including The Paradox of Choice and Why We Work. He’s spent decades researching the link between psychology and economics—and delving into how we can make work better.

We were lucky enough to have Barry join our CEO Laszlo Bock a few weeks ago for a lunch-and-learn at the Humu offices. Here are a few highlights from the discussion.

Work is hard because we’ve set it up to feel hard

“One of the biggest misconceptions in the industrial world is that the only reason people work is to get paid,” Barry told us. “It’s also the most resistant to change.”

Based on this assumption, leaders have spent decades designing institutions that made it extremely hard for people to feel engaged with their work. Take an assembly line. “If you work on an assembly line,” Barry said, “There’s no other reason to be at work than to get paid. We made it impossible for you to behave in any other way.”

Unfortunately, most organizations rely only on rules and incentives to motivate their workforce. If employees follow the rules they get rewarded, and if they don’t, they get fired.

The first problem with rules and incentives is that on their own they usually fail to motivate the right behaviors. “Think of the teachers who find ways to boost their students’ test scores without teaching them a single new thing,” Barry pointed out. Most often, these are the “best” teachers.

Worse, rules and incentives can erode wisdom. When organizations rely on these two tools alone, their employees become unwilling to take risks, which makes it impossible for anyone to develop good judgment. Humans learn by making mistakes, recovering, and, over time, getting things right more and more often. In this way, we develop good judgment. Without it… we don’t.

But it doesn’t have to be this way

“We need to create institutions that allow people to bring more of themselves to work—and let them see the broader importance of what they do,” Barry advocated.

According to Barry’s research, satisfaction—and motivation—at work comes from doing something that matters. No form of compensation can replace that. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions: Wharton professor Adam Grant demonstrated that by helping people find meaning in work, you can improve productivity by more than 20%.

And yet, very few people are trained to see themselves as problem-solvers—or to understand how their work makes a positive difference in the lives of others—especially in what are often considered to be “low-skill” jobs.

In conversation with Laszlo, Barry argued that many “low-skill” jobs, like selling retail at the mall, are in fact the opposite. “Solving another person’s problem, even if it’s a small problem, is meaningful.”

Take the employees at the Container Store, whose products are essentially pieces of plastic,” he explained. “When you (a customer) walk in, their employees ask questions to understand your problem, and then help you solve it. As a result, these employees are incredibly enthusiastic about what they do. They see their work not as selling molded plastic, but as solving human problems. “And anything that involves solving human problems is high-skill—and meaningful—work.”

At Humu, we see a clear financial return to investing the kind of culture that Barry described: one in which employees are encouraged to bring their full selves to work. When we’ve nudged employees about how to create more human workplaces, we’ve seen employee retention intention, happiness, and the belief that leadership is taking action on good feedback all go up.

If you’re interested in learning more about Humu product, and how we can help your organization define, develop and improve upon happiness at work (not to mention all of the business benefits it provides), drop us a line at hello@humu.com.

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