Why We Work – 1

Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist studying the link between economics and psychology. He teaches at Swarthmore College and also frequently publishes editorials in the New York Times applying his research in psychology to current events. He has also authored many books based on his studies. Schwartz is an impressive TED speaker and has delivered wonderful TED talks such as –  The paradox of choice, Our loss of wisdomUsing our practical wisdom and The way we think about work is broken. I had written an article discussing his TED talk titled: The way we think about work is broken.

Recently I finished reading his TED book Why We Work and this article tries to discuss the ideas Schwartz has expressed in this book as a result of his 40+ years of study & experience with psychology,  behaviour and economics. I am fascinated by studies related to behavioural science, psychology, understanding our motivation for work and effect our work has on our life and personality. Keeping that in mind, I think Schwartz’s book Why We Work is quite an important book.

Since it is becoming quite a big article, I am splitting it in 2 posts and the second part of this book review would be published by Tuesday, 23 February 2016.

Introduction & The False Rationale

Barry Schwartz asks the crucial question: Why do we work? In his introduction, he suggests that we work not only to earn a living, but people find their work fulfilling primarily work because of the following reasons: they find their work engaging, challenging, work allows them to achieve mastery through autonomy and discretion, work offers them social engagement and finally they find their work meaningful.

Schwartz quotes 2013 Gallup report, which found that only 13% workers feel engaged by their jobs. Majority people do not find their work fulfilling. He examines The False Rationale that people only work for money.  He discusses Adam Smith and his famous explanation about pin factory and division of labour. He mentions Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), father of ‘Scientific Management’ movement who used meticulous time and motion studies to refine the factory, as envisaged by Smith, so that human labourers were part of a well-oiled machine. B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) later showed that behaviour of animals could be powerfully influenced and precisely controlled by manipulating the amount and frequency of the rewards the behaviour produced. Schwartz suggests industrial revolution and consequential capitalism as manifestation of the ideas put forth by Smith, Taylor and Skinner. He further says that the workplaces based on such ideas make false ideas come true because what people come to seek in work largely depends on what their work makes available. As one of the central ideas of this book, Schwartz asserts this:

We design human nature by designing the institutions within which people live and work.

When Work Is Good

In his discussion When Work Is Good, he examines various interviews conducted by Amy Wrzesniewski et al. during their study. Hospital custodian Luke’s story is one such interesting story: Luke went on to clean patient’s room twice to pacify the father whose son was in coma. Though his job description didn’t mention anything about caring for the patients, Luke and few others at the hospital shaped their jobs aligning with the central purpose of the hospital in mind. The researchers (Wrzesniewski et al.) termed it as Job Crafting.

Another real-life, inspiring story of good work is about carpet manufacturing company, Interface. Twenty years ago its  founder and chairman Ray Anderson realized that his company was poisoning the environment. He did not want to leave an uninhabitable planet for his grandchildren, so he decided to transform every aspect of Interface’s operations to achieve a zero-footprint goal by 2020. He knew that this commitment would cost him a lot of money, but he was willing to sacrifice the bottom line to achieve a social good and more environment-friendly production practices. Surprisingly, Interface did not have to sacrifice any profit! Interface employees were so motivated by the opportunity to work for the common good, and challenged by the need to find innovative modifications of the production process, that their work became much more effective and efficient. This entire story is quite intriguing – Interface realized that its zero-footprint mission would require creative partnership from top to bottom of the organization, so it flattened its hierarchy and gave employees much more discretion and control over what they did. Progress toward sustainability required creative solutions, so a culture that encouraged openness and allowed for failure emerged. Today, Interface remains extremely successful and has employees who are eager to come to work every day. Though Ray Anderson passed away in 2011, he has documented this story in his book – Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose-Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. I am quite impressed by the transformation story of Interface and I believe corporates can use these insights to build work around Purpose & Meaning!

Schwartz mentions more such interesting examples of good work from cutting hair to students calling alumni for money when work is linked with purpose and meaning. He says that sense of higher purpose is close to indispensable when it comes to being happy about your work, though there are many other factors as well.  He also cites work by Jeffrey Pfeffer and his book The Human Equation – after analyzing several growing and sustainably profitable companies, Pfeffer mentioned that a good company nurtures high commitment workers who care about doing their job well. On the other hand, micro-management, lack of autonomy and speeding up work for better efficiency/productivity often prove counter-productive, resulting in poor performances and losses for the company. Schwartz mentions Barbara Fredrickson’s work Positivity referring to its central insight that when people are experiencing positive emotions, they think expansively & creatively, which obviously produces better work. Better work in turn creates more positive emotions, which in turn promotes better work and so on. Thus, positivity nurtures itself. Schwartz calls it a Virtuous Cycle!

He narrates the story of grocery chain stores Market Basket as an example of a Virtuous Cycle. These stores were owned by Demoulas family and practically run by president Arthur T. Demoulas. He treated his employees well and knew most of them personally including their family circumstances. Employees were paid well and participated in profit sharing. Market Basket kept its prices low and the employees worked with dedication, enthusiasm and treated customers really well. They were flourishing, but in June 2014 Arthur T. Demoulas was fired. This resulted in a big surprise: many of their employes refused to go to work and even customers supported them by stopping purchases from the stores in support of Arthur T. Demoulas. Thousands of common people were protesting in support of a billionaire. Consequently, the stores became empty and business suffered. Finally by the end of August 2014, Arthur T. Demoulas bought out rival relatives and was restored as the president. It is heartening to know that a business can flourish by treating its employees and customers well, and creating a virtuous cycle of work-satisfaction and better work. Schwartz suggests that head of organizations can ask themselves:

How can I make my business better by restructuring my employees’ jobs?

Schwartz further discusses bad work and how our ideas influence our actions and workplaces – I have covered it in the second part published on Tuesday, 23 February 2016.


I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested, you can purchase this book Why We Work on Amazon by clicking on the link below.

Why We Work - Barry Schwartz
Why We Work – Barry Schwartz