Why We Work – 2

This is the second part of the book review: Why We Work 1, please read the first before reading this second part.

How Good Work Goes Bad

The studies and stories Schwartz narrates here are contrary to many of our strongly held beliefs.  He cites a comprehensive article by Timothy Judge and colleagues about significance of salary to job satisfaction in which they reviewed results of 86 studies involving approximately 15000 employees. Their analysis of the data of these studies suggested that level of pay had very little effect on either job satisfaction or pay satisfaction. Schwartz argues that we do not create enough workplaces that encourage good work with engagement, autonomy, purpose and meaning. Instead, as Schwartz mentions, we are creating jobs that are white collar-equivalent of factory work.

He gives example of education which seems to believe that if you create smart system, you don’t need smart and dedicated teachers. He shows examples of rule-and-script-driven education that specifies every minute detail of the day’s lesson, without trusting wisdom and discernment of teachers, without offering them much autonomy or creativity. He explains nexus between standardized tests and standardized, scripted curricula. He also explains how schools’ and teachers’ funding, rating are dependent on their students’ performance in these tests.

He cites another case from medical profession of Dr. David Hilfiker saying, “Patients’ diseases and my services became commodities that were bought and sold at a price.”. He explains how doctors get influenced and how that increases cesarean cases or expensive MRI diagnosis in the USA. As we all know, it is a rampant practice in India as well. He also cites similar examples in the field of Law in America where everyday decisions are based on what is profitable and what you can get away with instead of  what is right and what it wrong.

Schwartz argues:

Somehow, system designers repeatedly fail to appreciate that when material incentives are put front and center, other values essential to motivating employes get crowded out. And it is these other values that are responsible for excellent performance.

Schwartz narrates two interesting, real-life stories here. The first one is of an Israeli day care center. More and more parents were coming late after the closing time to pick up their kids. Parents knew it was a wrong thing to do, but 25% of them continued coming late. The day care center couldn’t just leave toddlers alone to wait for their errant parents. Since their repeated requests to parents to pick-up their kids on time did not yield much results, they finally decided to impose a fine. So parents now had another reason to come on time – to save fine. Surprisingly, the day care center found that imposing fine actually increased the number of parents coming late. From 25%, the latecomers increased to 33% and as fine continued, almost 40% parents started coming late. The fine just became a price for coming late. Schwartz explains this paradoxical effect of fine – he says when fines were introduced, the moral dimension of parents’ behaviour (of coming late) disappeared. When the parents at the day care center were given a second reason to be on time – the fines  – it undermined their first reason, that it was the right thing to do.

The second story is about the study of the willingness of Swiss citizen to have nuclear waste dumps in their community. The citizens were well-informed and had strong view on this. When researchers asked people if they were willing to have nuclear waste dumps in their community, surprisingly 50% people agreed despite it being potentially dangerous and would lower the property prices in the community. The dumps had to go somewhere and people had obligations as citizens. Later researchers modified question and offered monetary incentive to have dumps in the community. This incentive, presumably gave people a second reason, besides their obligation as citizens, to have nuclear waste dumps in their community. Yet, in response to this question, only 25% of respondents agreed. Adding the financial incentive cut acceptance in half.

Schwartz also offers another examples when people would willingly do something as a favour, but when offered a small amount of money for that, would often refuse. Schwartz suggests that such two reasons do not add up, but instead they compete. Thus, social motives and financial ones compete. He asserts that there is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work.

Schwartz summarizes this as:

This is what incentives can do in general. They can change the question in people’s minds from “Is this right or wrong?”  to “Is this worth the price?”

For me, this is one of the most eye-opening insights from this book and I am planning to read more studies about this.

The Technology Of Ideas

Schwartz says that natural sciences don’t care about our idea about how things work or how universe works – the planets will continue to rotate irrespective of what ideas we have about them. However, in social sciences our ideas about human nature shape human nature itself.  He says ideas influence in far more serious way than we ever realize. Ideas suffuse through the culture and have profound effect on people even before they are noticed. Secondly, ideas have profound effect on people even if the ideas are false – false ideas can affect how people act, just as long as people believe them. Schwartz terms it as ‘Idea Technology’ and uses Ideology in the sense that Karl Marx used it – to denote an untrue idea.

He suggests that ideology becomes true firstly by changing how people think about their own actions and secondly via self-fulfilling prophecy: a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour that makes the originally false conception come true.

He offers several examples of this, one of them is the study by Rosenthal and Jacobson called Pygmalion Effect: labelling of certain students as promising became a self-fulfilling prophecy by changing the way teachers taught, and resulted in better performance by those students.

He also discusses work of Carol Dweck summarized in her book: Mindset. She says we can distinguish among children based on the goals that seem to be operating while they learn: performance-oriented children want to prove their ability while mastery-oriented children want to improve their ability. Beneath these two orientations are two theories that children have about intelligence – something that is fixed/immutable or something that is incremental. Schwartz suggests that intelligence may be what you believe it to be.

Lastly, Schwartz says that the most profound way an ideology can have an influence on our work and beyond is by changing institutional structures in a way that is consistent with the ideology. He says:

To a large degree, the effect of ideology on how people act will depend on how broadly, how pervasively and how saliently it is purveyed in a culture.

When social structures are shaped by ideology, ideology can change the world, sometimes in devastating, far-reaching ways.

According to him, the concept of ideology, the self-fulfilling feedback loops that ideology can give rise to, explain why most workplaces rely on close supervision, routinized work and incentives.  Ideology is a powerful fiction and dominates our institutions, our relation with our work and our culture.

Clifford Geertz observed that human beings are “unfinished animals” and Schwartz adds that what we can reasonably expect of people depends on how our social institutions “finish” them.

Designing Human Nature

After explaining good work, bad work and how our ideas about people and their work shape our workplaces, Schwartz suggests that we must nourish alternatives for better future of work.  He reiterates the central argument of this book –

When we give shape to our social institutions – our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces – we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design.

Schwartz asserts that if we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. When people are able to do work that they value, it makes them happy and enhances their well-being.

He says: When it comes to the design of work, we must ask “Why?” What is the purpose of this work? Will the purpose of work inspire people to do their job as Luke did in his custodial job in the hospital? He also asks to delve into “What” and “How” of the work while designing work itself and suggests alternatives to build better work place and work culture.

Schwartz hopes that the world of work, and thus world of human experience, will be a very different place if we ask ourselves these questions about the work we do, and the work we ask others to do. As a result we’ll have better doctors, lawyers, teachers and janitors, and more satisfied clients/customers!


Barry Schwartz has been thinking about the ideas presented in this book for more than 40 years. The book itself is quite small (less than 100 pages), but it is full of references to other impressive and insightful studies that he summarizes quite well. He analyses and discusses effects of long-held, defective beliefs about why we work. He strongly advocates that we should trust that people would better work when the work is engaging and when they have more autonomy. He not only proposes his ideas of better workplaces and engaging work, but also discusses real-life successful case studies such as carpet manufacturer Interface, grocery chain stores Market Basket, Toyota‘s takeover of failed GM plant in 1983 which offered more engaging, meaningful work and autonomy to their employees. To me, this is the most eye-opening and inspiring part of the book that provides hope for establishing such workplaces.

He starts with following quote by John Keynes and explains in the book why those ideas are so powerful –

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

~ John Keynes

I resonated a lot with several insights from this book and I believe that’s how work should be and that’s how organizations should design their workplaces and build their processes/systems. Some of the studies and insights such as disadvantages of incentives were surprising for me and have offered better perspectives after I read the referred studies. The reason I have written about this book in details because I think this book should be studied seriously by anyone interested in understanding why people work – so these are my notes about the book that I will keep referring to as I work with individuals or organizations. Secondly I think this is a very important book for many of us including CxOs, HR executives, startup founders, management consultant, organizational development (OD) consultants, people working in talent management domain and even individuals to understand and reflect Why Do We Really Work!

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