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What’s Best For Employees Is Best For Business
In the early 1850s, Daniel McCallum, the General Superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad, had a problem. At the time, the New York and Erie Railway was the largest railroad in the world. It moved trains over one million miles a year and employed hundreds of people - locomotive engineers, conductors, mechanics, station agents and more. For the first time in history it was impossible for a single person to personally manage every one of his employees. The solution was an historic innovation: the middle manager. With it, the first administrative hierarchies in American business were born and the gap between the owner and the entry-level employee inevitably widened. The corporate ladder received its first rungs.
With the manager came the modern organization chart. McCallum grouped employees into divisions and connected each division to a manager and each manager to a boss. The purpose of the chart, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan explain in their book The Org, was to “create… an organization with clear divisions of responsibilities, power conferred on bosses in the chain of command, channels of communication to report on whether duties had been carried out, and the means to allow the superintendent… to have a clear view on what was going on through the org and the power to act on it.”
Since then, different management theorists have moved in and out of favor, from Frederick Taylor to Jack Welch. Despite surface diversity, however, one question underpins each theory: how do you manage and motivate an employee?
A fundamental problem with business is the mismatch between human nature and the nature of an organization. Humans crave community and friendship, a sense of purpose or meaning, and a feeling of control. Most businesses - especially large bureaucratic ones - deprive employees of each: cubicles are isolating, assembly lines are unavailing, and steep corporate hierarchies make progress elusive. The good news is recent (and classic) psychological research outlines how we might align business needs with human needs. In fact, this task might not be a zero-sum endeavor: sometimes what’s best for business is best for employees.
For starters, consider a field study conducted by Wharton professor Adam Grant, now of Give and Take fame. Grant brought a student into a call-center that raised money to fund scholarships. The student had directly benefited from the fundraising, and he spoke to employees for 10-minutes about how his scholarship changed his life and helped him land a job as a teacher for Teach for America. He couldn't have succeeded without their effort. Did the 10 minute confession matter? Grant found that workers spent 142 percent more time on the phone and brought in 171 percent more revenue a month after the testimonial - despite the fact they used the same script.
In other words, performance increased when the spotlight shifted from the employee to how their efforts benefited other people. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Nick Tasler lists a few companies that have implemented similar anti-Sisyphean measures.
Medtronic (MDT) [has] for years invited customers to give testimonials at their annual meetings. Qualcomm (QCOM) collects and shares stories with employees about how cell phones have saved people's lives in emergency situations... The message these practices send to people inside the company—from the shop floor to the C-suites—is that "without your work, the world would be a worse place.”
Community – the feeling that you are part of a collective – matters as well. To see how, let me tell you about a piece of research conducted by Hal Hershfield, a professor at NYU, and three of his colleagues. Imagine that someone asks you to write an “alternative universe” story about a company you work for. In this story, you must imagine what the world would have been like if key events that were responsible for the inception of your company did not happen. If you work for Apple you might think about Steve Jobs never meeting Steve Wozniak; if you work for Google you might imagine Alta Vista wining the search engine war.
Hershfield found that compared to a control group that simply wrote about the factual origins of their company (participants were MBA students), the “counter-factual reflection group demonstrated higher commitment to their organizations.” That is, envisioning a universe without your company elicits a sense of camaraderie – it sparks an urge to give back and contribute to the greater good. (We might term this the George Bailey effect after the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey realizes the impact he had on Bedford Falls only after he sees it without him.)
Finally, a sense of agency – the feeling that you are in control – is critical. Here’s the classic experiment. In the 1970s, the psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin went to a nursing home and created two groups, choosers and non-choosers. They gave the choosers the responsibility to water plants and schedule movie night and non-choosers no responsibilities. Langer and Rodin found that people in the “no-choice” condition died, on average, 18 months sooner than those in the “choice” condition. As the two psychologists put it: “control proved to be a potent variable.”
Charles Duhigg provides a workplace example of this effect his book The Power of Habit:
One 2010 study at a manufacturing plant in Ohio… scrutinized assembly-line workers who were empowered to make small decisions about their schedules and work environment. They designed their own uniforms and had authority over shifts. Nothing else changed. All the manufacturing processes and pay scales stayed the same. Within two months, productivity at the plant increased 20 percent. Workers were taking shorter breaks. They were making fewer mistakes. Giving employees a sense of control improved how much self-discipline they brought to their jobs.
We’ve come a long way from a time when inhumane management systems like Taylorism and Fordism - which sacrificed employee well-being for efficiency - dominated the economy. What changed? The transition from an industrial economy to a service economy was crucial. But our understanding of the human condition also played an important role.
I've outlined three components to employee well-being: purpose, community, and control. These enduring needs might sound obvious, but psychologists largely ignored the science of well-being for first half of the 20th century. Freud claimed that we are plagued by anxieties and suppressed sexual desires. Skinner demonstrated the power of conditioning, concluding that behavior is simply about reinforcing or inhibiting certain stimuli. Identifying and attempting to cure mental illness was also popular.
This changed in the last few decades. Psychologists started studying the rosier aspects of human nature: creativity, achievement, passion, and motivation. One result was the idea that humans are not endlessly malleable – that under certain conditions we are driven to achieve more. In Search of Excellence (1982) was the first mega-popular business book to advocate this. Co-authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman rightfully advised managers to provide meaningful tasks, value intrinsic motivation, cultivate passion, and ensure that employees maintain a sense of control over their work. It was a monumental departure from Taylor and Ford.
Today, companies like Zappos.com are attracting headlines (and employees) by not only applying “positive psychology” research but making it the bedrock of its operations. Happiness is the Zappos ethos. CEO Tony Hsieh’s insight is that a happy employee is a productive employee who makes happy customers. Happy customers, in turn, are good for business. The implication is this: what’s gained on employee well-being is gained on the bottom line. Productivity and efficiency are not a zero-sum game with respect to happiness.
This might sound strange to McCallum if he was alive today, but in a post-industrial world, it makes sense. A business, like a fraternity or church, can fulfill the three enduring human needs outlined above: purpose, community, and control. When it does, as Zappos demonstrates, employees are happy and business is good. The exciting part is that psychology is showing us how we might accomplish this. If we can learn one thing from Hsieh, it is that human happiness might be the business model of the future.
Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>