Why we’re disengaged at work | Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College
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Why we’re disengaged at work | Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College


[MUSIC PLAYING] I’m old. I need notes. [LAUGHTER] I barely remember my name. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a great event. I have learned a
huge amount today. And my main role in
this session will be to kind of steer a bunch
of people who HAVE started wonderful companies, who have
much more interesting things to tell you than I do. But I will say a few things
beforehand about why we work. I wrote a book. Buy that title. It’s really short. One trip to the bathroom
and you can finish it. [LAUGHTER] And the arguments in the
book are a little different from most of what we’ve
been hearing today. What I’ve been hearing today
is mostly the expressed concern of people who want to
do the right thing, but don’t know
exactly how to do it. And so there hasn’t been much
discussion of motivation. There’s been discussion
of implementation. What data do we need to collect? What practices do we need
to deploy it in order to achieve our common goal? I think that’s a
wonderful attitude. And I think everybody in this
room shares that attitude. And I think that virtually
nobody in the rest of the world shares that attitude. [LAUGHTER] So my interest has been
trying to figure out why it is that so
few people care about the quality of the work
that they ask people to do. We know that we wouldn’t
work if we didn’t get paid. But we also know that pay is not
the only reason that we work. Here are some obvious
things that people care about when they work. They want to be engaged. They want to be challenged. They want to get
good at something. They want to have some
control over what they do. They want to have nice,
productive social relations with other people. And perhaps most important,
speaking to the talk we just heard, they
want meaning out of their work,
which mostly means they want a sense at
the end of the day that they have done some small
thing to make someone else’s life better. If their work has
these characteristics, it’s good work. If their work doesn’t have
these characteristics, it’s not good work, even if
they’re well paid to do it. So the question is,
how are we doing? And the answer is we
are doing really badly. Gallup surveys workers around
the world on an annual basis. This is a survey from 2014. In 140 countries– a quarter
of a million people– 13% percent of people were
engaged by their work. 63% were not
engaged, which I take to mean that they were
principally mailing it in. And 24% were
actively disengaged. So think about what that means. It means that throughout the
world, roughly 90% of people are forced to go
every day to do work they don’t want to do in a
place they don’t want to be. And the question is why. And what makes this
question more puzzling is that Jeffrey
Pfeffer has shown– and others have shown
this too– that when you look at the productivity
and profitability of companies across many, many
different industries, consistently companies
that have the most, quote, enlightened management practices
are the most profitable companies. What that means is that managers
are consistently leaving money on the table. Even if they don’t care
at all about the welfare of their employees,
they presumably care about the welfare
of their shareholders. And they’re leaving
money on the table. And the question is why. And I have an answer
to that question. And that answer is
what I have come to call ideology, which is a
term I borrowed from the oldest Marx brother, Karl. [LAUGHTER] Karl Marx talked
about what he called false consciousness, which
is what he meant by ideology. It’s a set of ideas that we
believe to be true that aren’t. Now, it’s not so
bad to have ideas that you believe to be true that
aren’t if you’re a physicist. You have ideas that
you believe to be true that aren’t,
eventually in the fullness of time empirical research will
show that your ideas are false. And someone else’s
ideas are true. In the human
sciences, the dynamics are different, because if
you have ideas that are false you can then implement social
structures and practices that work to make the ideas true. And that’s what he
meant by ideology. Adam Smith, the father of the
great Industrial Revolution, said, “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.” What is he saying? We want to be
lying on the couch, eating chips, and watching
the Golden State Warriors win another championship. The only way to get our asses
off the couch is to pay us. If you pay us, it doesn’t
matter what you ask us to do. People don’t want
to do anything. As long as you pay them, you
can get them to do anything. This, I think, is what ushered
in scientific management– the Ford assembly
line and the soul [INAUDIBLE] work that most
people throughout the world experience. This is his claim about
what people are like. He was wrong. But if you institute a
system of factory production, of the kind that we have in
fact introduced and implemented, all of a sudden
he becomes right. Why else would anyone
go to a job like that, except for the paycheck? He knows this himself. He says, “The man
whose life is spent in a few simple
operations has no occasion to exert his understanding
or to exercises his invention in finding out expedience for
difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore,
the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as
stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a
human creature to be.” [LAUGHTER] Harsh words, and I’m a
big fan of Adam Smith’s. I’ve chosen him at his worst. The two things I
want you notice here. He naturally loses the habit. That means before he entered
the workplace, he was different. He generally becomes stupid. That means before he entered
the workplace, he wasn’t. Right in this quote is
evidence that Smith understood that work makes people. Work changes people. And the question is why is
it that we have allowed work to change people
in ways that have made work unsatisfying and
largely unsatisfactory. That’s the question
I’ve been focused on. Most people have not worry too
much about this, unfortunately. And I’m happy to
do sort of chair a panel of young, spectacularly
ambitious, and visionary people who have started
companies that seem committed to demonstrating to
the rest of the world that Adam Smith was wrong. So please let’s welcome
them on to the stage. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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