Jack Covert Selects

Why We Work

September 03, 2015


Barry Schwartz discusses what motivates us to work, and how to redesign our workplaces—and human nature along with it—armed with that knowledge.

Why We Work by Barry Schwartz, TED Books, 120 pages, $16.99, Hardcover, ISBN 9781476784861

In the past two months' Jack Coverts Selects, we’ve explored how we work, how to get better at certain aspects of our work, who we go to work to serve, and what jobs will be left for us to even do. Barry Schwartz goes even deeper and asks the crucial question, “Why do we work?” His answer takes shape in his new book, Why We Work.

Adam Smith had a rather pessimistic answer:


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 weather he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner that authority will permit.

Smith’s view on this has mostly been taken as gospel—infallible and unimpeachable—and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theories and the “scientific management” movement that built much of how the modern workplace is structured, is based upon this idea that “people work for pay—nothing more and nothing less.” Schwartz tells us this is a dangerous idea that has a ripple effect.


Ideas or theories about human nature have a unique place in the sciences. We don’t have to worry that the cosmos will be changed by our theories about the cosmos. The planets really don’t care what we think or how we theorize about them. But we do have to worry that human nature will be changed by our theories of human nature. … [H]uman nature is more created than discovered. We “design” human nature, by designing the institutions within which people live.

Barry Schwartz is blunt in his repudiation of Smith’s view of work:


Adam Smith was mistaken about our attitudes and aspirations regarding work. But as capitalism developed in his shadow, under the sway of the “incentive theory of everything,” a mode of work evolved in which all other satisfactions that might come from it were eliminated. … Because there was no reason to work except for a paycheck, they worked for a paycheck.

It is in exactly this way that human nature changes. Schwartz shares a commonly referenced Gallup study that describes how twice as many people are “actively disengaged” at work than are engaged, and explodes the myth that this is because of the very nature of work—especially that only certain kind of jobs can be meaningful and engaging.

He does this by telling us the stories of some individuals who work in a profession that most see as at the bottom of the ladder—those who keep our workspaces clean, janitors. The stories he tells come from researcher Amy Wrzesniewski who was studying how people structure their work. The janitors she interviewed in her research work in a major teaching hospital, and have transcended their job description, the basic but important work of waxing floors and cleaning rooms. They have taken on the mission of the hospital as their own, and the stories of their interaction with and empathy for the hospital’s patients are inspiring. It was in these interactions with patients and their families that they found their most satisfaction at work. It was not their job, and not in their job description, but going that extra mile to connect with and care for people made their work more than a job or career, it turned it a calling. Amy Wrzesniewski and her collaborators call this job crafting. They have, as Schwartz tells us, “shaped their jobs with the central purpose of the hospital in mind.” And they were more engaged in their work because they didn’t limit the scope of their janitorial services and keeping a building clean, they viewed it as caring for people. Just as important as not limiting their own perception, they weren’t limited by their employer’s view of their work, either.


Meaningful and engaged work emerged because they wanted to craft their jobs into callings, and—and this is important—because it was not forbidden.

Why would anyone forbid people to work [this way]? One reason is efficiency. If custodians just put their heads down and go about ticking off items in their job descriptions, they’ll get “more” done.

A second reason is the desire on the part of managers for control. If custodians … start freelancing—deviating from their scripts to step into the breach when help is needed, then control moves from the manager to the managed. Many years ago, economist Stephen Marglin wrote an important article called “What Do Bosses Do?” in which he argued that a central and often unacknowledged consequence of the assembly-line division of labor is that it takes control of the job away from the person doing it and gives it to the boss—the person who constructs the assembly line.

He shows not only how “bad jobs” can be turned into good ones with the right policies and perception in place, but how traditionally “good jobs” like those in higher education, medicine, and law, can “easily turn into bad ones, either from excessive oversight and regulation or from overreliance on material incentives.” These measures not only rob workers of the ability to improvise and innovate in real time, on the front lines, leaving their work “much impoverished,” but rob the entire organization of their extra effort, which makes it run less well.

For such a brief book, Schwartz’s research and references lead to a plethora of other studies, books, and authors. He even brings in the work of Jeffrey Pfeffer, whose new book we’ll be looking at next week, and references the story of grocery chain Market Basket, which we looked at last month.

What it all shows is that the tendency toward routinization and excessive supervision, and an overreliance on material incentives is destructive of good work and good work environments. Speaking of material incentives, Schwartz tells the story of an Israeli daycare center that began imposing fines for parents being late (thus forcing workers to stay late) that had the counterintuitive effect of increasing the instances of lateness because parents now viewed it as a transaction rather than part of their social contract. He tells of a study that that showed how offering friends a fee to help you move actually decreases their inclination to do so, because they then view it as a working for fee instead of doing a favor, and it is easier to turn down money you don’t need than refuse a favor.

It turns out that returning the discretion for how employees do their work to employees, and allowing them to find their own intrinsic motivation, meaning, and purpose in their work, naturally aligns them to an organizations’ larger mission more than a manager telling them what that mission is. As Schwartz concludes:


If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.

If we improve the environments we work in—whether we’re doing the work of a janitor, doctor, hairdresser, or teacher—in these ways, not only will we be happier and more fulfilled at work within organizations that run better, we will create a more equitable, empathic, and caring society. We will, in effect, be recreating and improving upon our very human nature. And won’t it be great when we can all of us say, this is why we work.

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