A really big truck

Virtual Taps

Keep the aspidistra flying

There’s a great story in today’s New York Times science section about the different types of malevolent bosses. It quotes several psychologists who’ve recently been studying the ways in which nasty, abusive, mean-spirited tyrants affect a workplace. Among their most surprising finding is this:

The mystifying thing about this pattern is that it does not appear to undercut productivity. Workers may loathe a bullying boss and hate going to work each morning, but they still perform. Researchers find little relationship between people’s attitudes toward their jobs and their productivity, as measured by the output and even the quality of their work. Even in the most hostile work environment, conscientious people keep doing the work they are paid for.

The funny thing is, this shouldn’t be surprising. Management studies have found — time and time again — that low morale does not correlate to low productivity. A workplace can be a total sinkhole of misery, presided over by the most tiny-minded suburban Napoleons that god ever suffered to crawl across the face of the Earth … yet the employees can still be extremely productive.

What’s even more interesting is that people frequently refuse to believe this, even when confronted by empirical evidence. I’ve gotten in huge arguments with friends of mine about it. They insist that the only way a company can be productive is if its employees are happy; it offends them, on some moral level, to suggest that happiness and morale are irrelevant in a company.

I think it’s because, culturally, it’s alarming to realize how little the marketplace cares about your well-being at work. The free market may be many excellent things — efficient, productive, and a producer of fascinatingly unpredictable bits of distributed intelligence — but it absolutely is not an instrument of justice, fairness, or even happiness. That ought to be obvious. But we’ve been lovebombed for years by political economists who equate the free market with democracy and human rights, when the two are rather different fields: Not necessarily opposed, but sometimes — even frequently — in conflict.

The other reason people assume unhappy workers will be unproductive is that we make a logical mistake inferring from the opposite. We see situations in which a) the employees are happy, and b) the company is productive, and think one necessarily follows from the other. Sure, a productive company can be the result of happy employees. But it doesn’t have to be. The company would probably do just as well if the worker bees hated their bosses and most of their jobs.

I’m not arguing that employers should be disdainful of their workers’ happiness. On the contrary, I think we have a moral imperative to treat people decently. It’s just that the marketplace will almost never punish a boss for being a complete dick.

And hey, so long as I’m pontificating here, I’ll go even further: I think the entire social role of happiness is poorly understood. In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Jim Holt reported on an intriguing new psychological study that upends some of our most cherished beliefs about happiness:

Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments — like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he’s a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody’s sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an ”everything is fine” attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes — including malicious ones.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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