What's Possible at Work?


by Sue Bingham, Founder and Principal at HPWP Consulting

I read Barry Schwartz's recent article, "Why We're So Unhappy With Work — And How to Fix It," with great interest. His conclusions, grounded in solid research and sage reflection, make it one of the best summaries I have ever read on the current state of the workplace.

In its landmark 2013 survey, Gallup reported that nearly nine out of 10 workers were either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" from their jobs. Schwartz's article makes a fascinating connection between this modern disengagement disaster and the roots of the Industrial Revolution.

The belief that people are "naturally lazy and...work only for pay" has been an underlying premise upon which many of our country's industrial advances have occurred, argues Schwartz. Sadly, that belief is still common today. According to Schwartz, "Today, in factories, offices, and other modern workplaces, the details may be different, but the overall situation is the same: Work is structured on the assumption that we do it just for the money."

Negative Assumptions About People

For 35 years, I have been warning leaders about the pitfalls of negative assumptions about people. Negative assumptions express the sentiment that people are fundamentally lazy, desire to work as little as possible, avoid responsibility, are not interested in achievement, are incapable of directing their own behavior, prefer to be directed by others, and are not very bright.

Although we personally wouldn't characterize our own thoughts and feelings in this manner, we must look at our actions, policies, and practices that embody these negative assumptions. One such example is the notion that employees will not perform without systems that measure, track, analyze, and even shame their activity. In industry after industry, monitoring every movement — in some cases, every keystroke — is now a commonplace practice to "squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces."

But there's another workplace practice that embodies negative assumptions about workers that's common in the industries where I work. It's a sacred cow for many manufacturing and logistics leaders. It ruptures relationships, wreaks havoc on teams, and breeds mistrust: It's the use of workplace incentives.

Incentive systems are based on the negative assumption that people will perform better if they've been promised some sort of reward. I frequently hear from leaders that these systems are necessary tools for motivating sluggish workers. But why would you promise a reward to someone who's unmotivated?

Working with many companies who have implemented incentive systems for warehouse workers or production teams, I have seen disastrous outcomes. Motivated by "how can I personally achieve the most", these incentives drive behavior that gets in the way of teamwork, create unsafe working conditions, and lead to burnout and turnover.

Feed-the-Bear Thinking

According to numerous studies in laboratories, workplaces, and classrooms, incentives don't work — and often undermine the very processes they're intended to enhance. In his TED talk, "Using our practical wisdom," Schwartz puts it this way: "...When you manipulate incentives to get people to do the right thing, it creates people who are addicted to incentives. That is to say, it creates people who only do things for incentives."

I have often referred to this as feed-the-bear thinking. At first, feeding the bear is great, but what happens when you run out of goodies? This is something that psychologists and behaviorists have known for many years.

People who do exceptional work deserve to be handsomely paid, but they aren't working to collect a paycheck. They work because they have a desire to achieve, are capable of directing their own behavior, want the organization to succeed, and feel valued. When individuals feel valued by the organization they will perform to the highest of expectations. Companies should focus on the value of their employees, not the cost.

When compensation becomes the greatest measure of what's possible at work, it limits people and organizations alike. However, when work is meaningful and valued, it greatly expands the answers to "What's possible at work?

Sue Bingham is the founder and principal of HPWP Consulting. She is also a founding member of Great Work Cultures. Sue has been on the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. She is driven to create high performance workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members. Connect with Sue on Twitter at @suenhpwp.