Barry Schwartz, Author of Why We Work

Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz gave one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time called the Paradox Of Choice. It’s been viewed more than 8 million times.

More recently, Barry has been focused on talking about why work is broken. He literally wrote the book on purpose in work with his book, “Why We Work.” And why do we work? Do you ever think about that question?

In this episode, we’ll explore the answer to that question.

Show Notes & Links:

Here’s the transcribed version of this interview:

I want to start things off with what seems like a simple question, but as you say, the answer is quite surprising, urgent and complex. Why do we work?

Well, the standard view is that people work for pay. Period. If you pay them, it doesn’t matter what they do. If you don’t pay them, it doesn’t matter what they do. People work for pay, and that’s all there is to it.

So you can organize work in the most efficient, degrading, meaningless way possible and it really won’t matter because people work for pay. The whole point of my book is to suggest that while of course, people work for pay, that’s not the only reason why they work. It’s not even the most important reason why they work. People want to work that’s engaging, that’s challenging, where they have some control over what they do with some discretion, some variety, where they feel like they’re learning on the job.

And most important, people want to do work that has meaning. They want to feel like, somehow, what they do makes somebody else’s life better even in some small way.

So do you think the concept of meaning as you’ve been researching in all of your work is really around this desire to make a positive contribution to others? To help others, to serve others. Is that the central theme where meaning is derived from based on your work?

Yes. Now, there could be other ways where people get meaning out of what they do. But I think usually, most of the time when people talk about their work as meaningful, that’s what they mean.

And this doesn’t have to be curing cancer or eliminating malaria. It doesn’t have to be gigantic. If you work in sales at a department store and somebody comes in to buy a suit, your interaction with that person can have an enormous impact on the quality of that person’s decision and on the quality of that person’s day. And in the short run, the quality of that person’s life. If you feel like you’re there to serve customers, that’s one thing. If you feel like you’re there to make sales, that’s quite a different thing.

There’s nothing grandiose about working in retail. But still, every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to make that person’s life better.

And you shared a great example around the janitorial team. And I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong here, the Cleveland Clinic.

It’s not the Cleveland Clinic actually. I didn’t name the place. It was a different Midwestern academic hospital. But yes, that work was done by a colleague and close friend of mine named Amy Wrzesniewski. She interviewed hospital janitors who are, as I’m sure you know, are absolutely at the bottom of the hierarchy. They’re mostly invisible in the eyes of the rest of the staff and in the eyes of patients and patients families.

For some of them, it was just punch a clock, do your list of chores – emptying trash, wash the floors – and then punch out. But for a significant minority of them, while they did all those things, they also saw their job as doing whatever was necessary to aid in pursuing the mission of the hospital. And that meant cheering up patients, cheering up patients families, making the vigils of families in waiting rooms as comfortable as possible, helping nurses turn big patients so they don’t get bedsores – whatever way they could be helpful.

They were looking for ways to be helpful. None of which were part of their job description. And that’s what got them out of bed in the morning.

Absolutely. So, as you and Amy and other folks that you’ve collaborated with, in all of this research – has anything truly surprised you about the findings in any particular area?

No. It really hasn’t. I guess here’s what maybe surprised me. I live in a rarified world. Academics more probably than any other profession gets to pretty much do what they want. Define their work. Teach what you’re interested in. Do research on only what they’re interested in. I mean it really is like a gift to be in this position. So a lot of people probably assume that there are certain kinds of jobs where my description of what people want out of their work makes sense. But most jobs aren’t like that.

What I’ve found so surprising is that you can find people doing almost every imaginable job – like the hospital janitors, like people who cut hair, like people who work in factories – for whom, meaning, engagement, purpose, autonomy matter. They leave home everyday thinking at the end of the day they will have done something that made a positive contribution to the world.

And we tend to overlook that. Blue collar workers. And we shouldn’t.

Why do you think, and even perhaps in white collar situations – white collar, blue collar – whatever the color collar is, why has leadership in business today somehow failed to embrace this notion that if you can elevate the meaning or purpose behind the work, that you’re going to get better results. Why has leadership had such a hard time with this concept?

My book makes this argument. Let me assure you, I am not the first person to have made this argument. In management theory, this sort of argument gets made every 20 years. And it turns an actual workplace organization upside down for a little while. But it doesn’t stick.

There seems to be like a gravitational field that pulls people back to the much more cynical view that all you have to worry about is paying people. And I don’t know why that is. I think the notion that people work for pay is so deep in our ideology that we just can’t stay comfortable with the idea that people want to spend half of their waking lives working and doing something that enables them to feel good about themselves and their role in the world. It just doesn’t stick.

Right now I think there’s a bit of a revival and appreciation that it’s not enough to pay people. My sense, from what I’ve read – this is quite preliminary, I wouldn’t take this to the bank – is that this is especially true of millennials who care enormously about finding work that they’re going to care about. And also women. Meaning and purpose seems more important to women than it does to men. And it’s more important to young people than it is to older people.

If that’s true, what it means is that workplaces are going to have to change the structure of what they do if they’re going to attract talented women and the talented younger generation. Young people simply won’t stand for the kind of work that their parents resigned themselves to. That may force a change in the workplace that is longer lasting than the changes in the past. I’m hopeful, but it by no means in guaranteed.

In fact, you see the opposite happening. There are these professions – education, medicine, law – where there are lots of opportunity for all these attractive features of work that I just described. More and more, each of these professions is being turned into the equivalent of factory work. Teachers gets scripts to follow, and what that means is that the teachers quit, because that’s not why they got into it. Lawyers are the unhappiest profession. And doctors are catching up. They don’t feel like they can practice the way they want to and they don’t feel that the work they do is meaningful in the way they thought it would be when they entered their rigorous years of training.

We’re turning professions into factory jobs instead of trying to turn factory jobs into professions.

Interesting insight there. I want to go back to women just for a moment. What appears to be an incredible absence of feminine leadership, whether that’s men who are in touch with their feminine qualities, or women. In leadership today, whether it’s in corporate boards or at the top of corporate hierarchies, to use that terminology, there seems to be an incredible void. The predictions on when we may get to some level of parity between men and women in leadership roles is pretty far out into the future. Some studies are as far out as 2040, 2050, which frankly is kind of a long ways out. There’s some really interesting documentations, the Athena doctrine in particular, that talks about the importance of feminine values as the future of leadership. The spirit of collaboration, the spirit of empathy, the spirit of win-win solutions that this is what’s demanded of leaders today in business or government of leading nations. Why are we struggling so much with this concept?

I can only speculate. One of course is that every woman who takes a leadership position is displacing a man. It’s not hard to imagine the people who are at the top of the pyramid are extremely reluctant to give up their positions. And even more reluctant to admit that there’s perhaps a better way to lead organizations than the way they have. So there’s a lot of resistance.

Second, my sense is that maybe until recently – and maybe still – the only way women get to the top of the pyramid is basically by acting like men. Even though there’s a lot of mouthing off about so called feminine values, the women who actually have those values don’t make it to the top.

Almost feeling as if they have to act more like their male predecessors.

Exactly. There’s this lean and mean crackheads ethos to management that you’re a warrior going to do battle. That’s very hard to shake. I suspect that when people see that in women, they promote them. When they don’t see that, they worry they’ll never be able to make the hard decisions that running an organization requires.

But I think it will change. I think it may be a little optimistic to imagine that the world will be different in 20 years. It may take longer than that.

I want to get back to the revival comment that you made, where it certainly feels like a revival in finding meaning in ones work. Do you perhaps credit at all Elton Mayo back in the 40s in the human relations management…

Absolutely. That produced a blip. It just didn’t last. There’s theory “x” and theory “y” in the 1960’s. That also produced a blip.

Again, I’m certainly not the first person to have articulated this idea. It just doesn’t seem to alter practice across the board. There are a handful of workplaces, if you read about the 50 best places to work, and I assure you all those places understand what work should be like and what management should be like. The result is that they have a workforce that is not only talented and competent, but also highly motivated to do the best work they possibly can.

None of it is because somebody is looking over their shoulders, or because their bonus depends on it.

If I were an investor who actually picked stocks, I’d buy in companies that are on that list. Because as you said, companies that manage to sustain engaged workforces are more productive than the competition, pretty much across the board. Any industry you can think of. So it pays, even if you don’t care about the wellbeing of your workforce – and all you care about is your share price and your bonus – it pays to treat your workforce well.

I think there’s enough evidence mounting in organizations like Conscious Capitalism and the B Corp movement where you have some fairly decent sized companies with sustainable success that are proving to the rest of the world that this philosophy is not just airy fairy. That it does actually produce better results.

That’s right. It’s my hope that this time around there will be a critical mass. When the next generation of leadership arises through the ranks, they will insist that it’s not going to be business as usual. That will be good for everybody. That’s what we call a positive sum game. Everybody benefits.

Why have you chosen this particular line of research? You had mentioned in many ways academia is a bit a dream. You get to work on what you’re interested in. Why this for you?

I’ve been interested in motivation for pretty much my whole career. While academic life is in some sense, a dream, what I see around me more and more – I’m past this point – is people struggling to get tenure at a time when the job market is bad enough that if you don’t get tenure, it could be the end of your career.

What that means is they are trying to meet some productivity standard whether or not they’re at all interested in the work they’re doing. They have to produce a certain number of publications. In the classroom, they have to be popular so that they get good student evaluations even if they think that that’s not really the right way to be teaching.

I think a lot of the autonomy that I had and took for granted when I started out, younger people don’t feel like they have. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that there is the pernicious effect of grading on students at every level. You have students who are really interested in the material and they want to get an “A.” So sometimes what you do if you’re really interested and what you do if want to get an “A” are not the same things.

What that does is distorts student interest and student activity in pursuit of the grade rather than in pursuit of insight and enlightenment. This has always been in tension all throughout education. At the place I teach, which is such a selective institution, people used to not worry about their grades because anybody who got a degree from Swarthmore would do fine.

It’s almost Montessori like in it’s approach.

It wasn’t quite. I mean we were quite demanding. But if you got a “B” it wasn’t the end of the world. You could have a “B” average at Swarthmore and still get into a great medical school and get a great job or get whatever you wanted.

Well those days are gone and now students feel much more pressure of other students breathing down their necks. Even though they are really interested in learning, they are also interested in having a resume that will get them into whatever the next step is. That makes them less good students.

Almost a blend of the internal versus the instrumental.

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what it is. People delude themselves into thinking that they need a design and incentive system, like grading, that actually gets exactly what an internal system would get. But you’re just kidding yourself if you think you can do that.

I was going to ask about one of your recent TED Talks and the way we think about work is broken. You indicate that a large contributor to the infrastructure of how we view and experience work dates back to Adam Smith’s belief that humans are somewhat lazy and in order to get them to work, there has to be these incentives. You also talk about what sort of human nature do you want to be a part of designing. I want to talk about that. Have you thought about, and if so, what is that kind of human nature you want to be a part of designing?

I have thought quite a lot about that. But let me back up a step or two to make clear what you just said because I don’t think it’s a simple point.

The argument I make in the book is if you start out assuming that people work for pay, period, then you create workplaces that are focused on efficiency. Like an assembly line. You don’t think it matters, because people work for pay, so they’re going to get paid and everything is going to be fine with a nice, efficient factory.

Well, if every workplace is like an assembly line, then what is going to motivate people to work? The only reason people have for showing up at those jobs is pay. Because everything else – meaning, engagement, variety – all that stuff has been eliminated. So you create environments in which it is true that the only reason why people work is for pay.

So you create a human nature where the attitudes people have is work for a paycheck, and I’m going to get my life satisfaction on the weekend and when I’m on vacation.

And live two separate lives essentially. A work life and a home life.

Exactly. So I think Adam Smith was wrong in his assumption that people are basically lazy. But he gave rise to a movement that essentially made him right because that was the only kind of work that was available to most people.

There was a Gallup poll that showed that 10% of people around the world are actively engaged by their work. 1 in 10. In that kind of environment, we have essentially created a human nature that is exactly the human nature that Adam Smith assumed we already had.

But what that means is that by changing the shape of our social institutions, work is one of the most important of them since we spend half our lives at work, if we change the shape of work, we change the shape of human nature as well.

What kind of people do we want to be, and what kind of people do we want our kids to be, and what kind of people do we want our neighbors to be? Well, I want people who want to work, who want to be productive, who want to feel like they’re making a difference – even a small one. Who don’t have to be nudged, coaxed and bullied into showing up on the job. And who end up at the end of the day with a fair measure of satisfaction for how they spent the last 8 hours.

I think that will enrich people’s lives. Enormously. Make them more energetic, make them feel better about themselves. Almost certainly make their relationships off the job better than they would be if they were mostly frustrated and bored when they’re on the job.

So that’s the kind of human nature I want to help design and that requires revamping the character of the work that most people do.

What do you think might be the lowest hanging fruit that needs to be picked to really accelerate this human nature design that you speak of in business. Where is it? Is it leadership level? Is it front line? The middle management? Is it going to be driven by the consumers and client behavior?

I don’t think so. I think it’s leadership. I think leadership has to set the tone. And not just make a speech at the annual meeting. But actually make sure the tone they set and the goals and purpose of the organization are articulated and manifested all the way up and down the organization.

Higher managers who understand what the mission is and understand what it is to treat employees well and implement whatever it takes for that to be the case with the people they manage.

I think what often happens is leaders make these wonderful speeches that inspire and fill you with admiration. But meanwhile, they want a 10% return. The managers know that unless they produce a 10% return, they’re not going to keep their jobs. So the dirty work is done several levels below the CEO. The CEO can go spouting whatever beautiful lines he wants because he knows that the people who are in the trenches know that what really matters is producing a 10% return.

The leaders have to mean it, and it has to be reflected in the way they train and guide their managers. I don’t see it happening from the bottom up. It’s just too risky.

I think the opposite happens when teachers unions negotiate with cities. I think teachers really care about the conditions in which their students learn. They want ideal education opportunities for their students, or at least good educational opportunities. But when they come to the bargaining table it always turns out that it’s about wages and benefits and not about how many kids in a classroom. Or any of that other stuff.

So I don’t see it happening bubbling up from the bottom.

In Viktor Frankl’s Man Search For Meaning, he assets that happiness cannot be pursued, that it must ensue.

I think he’s right.

It is possible to make the leap in business that profits – the bottom line – is not something we should pursue, and instead it should be allowed to ensue by focusing on these other elements that will drive performance?

I think that’s a great idea but I’m afraid it’s a bit of a fairytale. Especially in public companies. If you own your own business you can do whatever the hell you want. If you fail, you fail. In public companies, your shareholders won’t let you get away with it. Even worse than that, they want evidence on a quarter by quarter basis.

So much of the challenge we face is truly being driven by what I would call speculators, not even investors or shareholders, who want immediate returns and are looking for returns.

I think that’s exactly right and it’s clear. You structure the salaries of high level executives so that they make a mere million dollars a year in salary and then they get ten, twenty, thirty million dollars in bonuses. The bonuses are directly tied to performance, which invariably means share price.

So everybody is operating on a short term basis. No one can take a breath. No one can take the risk of actually turning the ocean liner in a different direction. That’s why I think that the notion of profits as a byproduct of a company providing a needed service, and providing it well is a bit of a fairytale.

You gotta be able to control the company in order to have the breathing space to do that. Most public companies are really under the gun of speculators. That’s my sense.

I think potentially, the boards of directors, who are acting in the voice of the shareholders, maybe there’s an opportunity for them as well to have a larger voice around – if not a longer term perspective – perhaps a mid term perspective in moving away from this quarterly guidance and expectations that exist.

Well look. That would be great. The most storied investor of our age, Warren Buffet, whatever you want to say about him, short termism has never been his thing. He buys and holds. He buys companies he thinks are good and lets people running them run them the way they think they should be run. Somehow, everyone lionizes him but no one seems to be following his example.

The answer is right underneath our noses.

Right underneath our noses. Look maybe you’re right. The source of optimism is pressure applied from below by young people entering the workforce. Voting with their feet. I won’t take your job.

Much has been made about millennials getting a bad rap for changing jobs every 1, 2, 3 years and that that’s just the way it is. When I think about when I was young in my career, I didn’t want to change. Even if the conditions weren’t great. And I’m certainly not advocating for running a crappy company and having crappy working conditions, but starting a new job every year or two or three is a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of stress. If the workplace was a more meaningful place, I don’t think they would want to change. So we’re almost allowing this bad reputation of millennials being entitled and wanting to change because they don’t want to work hard is a bunch of hogwash.

I don’t think it’s true that they don’t want to work hard. I think they don’t want to spin their wheels. So if the work changes, you don’t have to change jobs. If there’s variety in the work, if there’s challenge in the work, then what difference does it make for which company you’re doing it for? I think this presumed restlessness on the part of the millennials is probably a reflection of how unsatisfying most workplaces are.

And think about the incredible costs to companies for having to retrain high level people.

And just turnover in general. Institutional knowledge being lost by the droves.

Exactly. None of that in my view is inevitable. That’s another thing that may drive it. Because millennials will vote with their feet, people will start stretching their heads and asking, “What are we doing wrong? How do we keep these people?”

I gave a talk at a company I can’t name, but a very, very high visibility tech company, and their main concern at this point – they’re growing rapidly – is how do we keep our people? Because the more mature companies – the Googles, the Microsofts – have a lot of trouble keeping their best people. Even though Google is probably as enlightened a workplace as you can find. Eventually it’s the sameness of things and you’re kind of hemmed in by legacy problems.

You want to create something new, but it can’t be incompatible with the old. Because if it’s incompatible with the old you get 3 billion people mad at you. All of a sudden you’re just not quite as free to exercise your imagination as you would be in a startup.

Is there a correlation between size of company perhaps? Maybe as a company grows so large in scale in numbers of employees, to be able to preserve what may have started as a purpose-driven culture, as it adds more people and grows and scales you lose your grip.

There’s no doubt that’s a real danger. The challenge is to find a way to keep it small by organizing working groups that are largely self contained. But if you do that, then you have the problem of siloing. You have three different working groups simultaneously coming to the identical solution to the identical problem. And an enormous amount of time and effort wasted.

How do you have these working groups that feel intimate and flexible without wasting institutional knowledge? It’s a challenge, but I don’t know if it’s a challenge that can’t be overcome.

There’s a lot to be said for trying to keep it local no matter how big you get.

I don’t want to minimize the huge popularity of your Paradox of Choice TED Talk. I’m curious, is that work that still captured a large part of your mind share? Or have you moved on fully to this Why We Work concept?

I really can’t move on because the world won’t let me. It’s interesting. There’s a new edition of the book that’s going to be coming out in a few months that’s not really different from the old edition, just a new coat of paint here and there. It’s just an idea that won’t die. Which is very gratifying. As much of what I said is true in 2004 is more true now.

Aziz Ansari wrote this book called Modern Romance. He’s the comedian and TV star. Best seller. It’s about how hard it is, in a world of Tinder, which you would think would make it easy, actually makes it harder to form romantic attachments because you open up your cell phone and you have an infinite number of potential partners. You just go thumbing through them and no one is good enough and you end up spending another night alone.

I think the problem is still very much with us. In some areas it’s worse than it was before. So people keep on wanting to talk to me about it, so I talk to them about it. I’m not doing any work on it.

We can blame it on salad dressing at the end of the day. My last question for you. In that talk, you talked about the infinite choices of a pair of blue jeans. I have to know. Have you found that perfect fit yet?

No. The benefit of writing this book was that it made me aware, even more than I previously was, of the trap that unlimited options can create. I have resolutely limited the options I consider. The result is that I have maintained modest standards for what counts as an acceptable pair of jeans.

I was always sort of that way. But I came a more extreme version of that as a consequence of having written the book. I’m sure there’s a perfect pair of jeans out there somewhere. I don’t give a damn.

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