No Flourishing in the Workplace


I spotted a column in the NYTimes by one of my favorites, Barry Schwartz, a psychology Professor at Swarthmore College. He is, perhaps, best known for his critical work on choice; he argues that too much choice is not good for human beings in his articles on “The Tyranny of Choice.” The NYTimes article I will discuss is about disaffection in the workplace. I found the opening is quite shocking. His cut on the Gallup data may be a bit too harsh, but the implications are deeply troubling in any case.

HOW satisfied are we with our jobs?

Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

Asking whether humans are basically lazy, Schwartz spends some column inches recalling Adam Smith, who wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.” Smith’s ideas in this classic also promoted the idea of the division of labor by which work was to be divided into a myriad of routinized tasks. The efficiency produced by this method would lead to bigger profits, but at the cost of making work uninteresting and routine.

Schwartz’s argument, based on much research on the relation between employee satisfaction and quality of output, is that workers do not behave as Smith would have them do. Satisfied, motivated workers, data show, “when given the chance to make their work meaningful and engaging, employees jump at it, even if it means that they have to work harder.” The same body of research shows positive results for company performance from such satisfied workers. The nub of the article comes in Schwartz’s questioning why do Smithian and related ideas about workers still hold the high ground when evidence points in the other direction. His response is of particular significance to my larger critique of modernity.

The answer, I think, is that the ideas of Adam Smith have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They gave rise to a world of work in which his gloomy assumptions about human beings became true. When you take all opportunities for meaning and engagement out of the work that people do, why would they work, except for the wage? What Smith and his descendants failed to realize is that rather than exploiting a fact about human nature, they were creating a fact about human nature.

I strongly agree with this and, further, argue that other ideas we take for granted have become foundational in our societal institutions and produce similarly perverse outcomes. My source for thinking this way comes from a number of primary sources. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, claims that our intentional behavior arises from what he calls our “autobiographical self;” brain processes that have been embedded as a result of all of our experience. The parts of the brain associated with actions we elevate in importance or frequency become more deeply affected, creating a kind of self-reinforcing process. Anthony Giddens, a sociologist I often refer to, uses a similar model to explain the way societies are formed and behave. He uses the device of memory traces, a sort of collective consciousness, as the repository of the “cognitive” structure that runs the societal engine. Similarly to the human brain, the societal “brain” reinforces the actions as the norms that differentiate one society from another. The same ideas are present in the phenomenological philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who argued that humans are shaped by the world within which they exist. The basic claims of all of these scholars and many others is that human being are creatures of habits, acquired through the experiences of life, not automatons being driven by some internal nature driving a fixed engine.

The critical importance of this view of human beings is that they can and do adapt to changing circumstances. If we change both our ideas about human as workers and the way we design the work environment, we can change the negative attitudes that work now creates. This idea, writ large, is my central thesis in how we can move from the present unsustainable and ineffective trajectory of modern life to one that creates flourishing as the vision of humanity for themselves and the worlds in which they exist (and draw meaning). We are no more homo economicus than the disaffected workers Smith wrote about. We live in a world where “facts” like this have been created by the self-reinforcing processes I mentioned above. Schwartz finishes with some thoughts about how to alter the workplace to create positive outcomes for workers, and create value for enterprises at the same time.

To be sure, people should be adequately compensated for their work. Recent efforts across the country to achieve a significant increase in the minimum wage represent real social progress. But in securing such victories for working people, we should not lose sight of the aspiration to make work the kind of activity people embrace, rather than the kind of activity they shun.…How can we do this? By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.

But most important, we need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better (and, of course, to make sure that it actually does make people’s lives a little bit better). The phone solicitor is enabling a deserving student to go to a great school. The hospital janitor is easing the pain and suffering of patients and their families. The fast-food worker is lifting some of the burden from a harried parent.

Embedded deeply in the last paragraph is prescription I have made for business in all my writing. I would say the same thing but use the language of care. Schwartz is arguing that businesses should deliver care to their customers, not simply economic exchange value. Their goods and services should enable customers to take care of their “work.” Work becomes, in this way, not some mechanical routine, but a caring process aimed at the flourishing of all parties involved. In the processes at work, the human beings in the company become engaged in actions that push them toward, not away, from flourishing. This idea is central in all my work and, particularly, the book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, of which I am one of eight colleagues and co-authors. The “facts” that Smith’s ideas and those of his Enlightenment fellow thinkers have created institutions that squelch flourishing, but both can be changed. To do so, we have to take a deep critical stances and raise the kind of questions found in Schwartz’s work and in my own.