Johnny Paycheck summed up the frustrations of disgruntled workers everywhere in his 1977 hit song, “Take This Job and Shove It.” The catchy tune immediately rose to No. 1 on the country music charts and stayed there for weeks, begging the question: Are people really that unhappy on the job?
They don’t have to be, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a professor with The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the world's most influential management thinkers. Grant recently discussed his thought-provoking views about workplace happiness on the Capital Ideas podcast.
In a wide-ranging interview with Capital Group’s Matt Miller, Grant shares five ideas that he believes could go a long way toward improving the sometimes contentious relationship between labor and management:
1. A shorter work day may be more efficient.
What if the standard work day was reduced to six hours? Grant cites a growing number of studies showing that most people get the bulk of their work done in a few bursts of productivity. In a typical day, at least a couple of hours are generally spent on less productive pursuits, such as surfing the internet and chatting with coworkers.
A compressed day, combined with objective-based rather than time-based evaluations, should help to make those hours more productive while also giving people additional time to handle personal tasks, such as picking up the kids after school or heading to the gym.
“There's a lot of rigorous evidence that we get more done during our busier periods,” Grant explains. Reducing the work day to an efficient six hours could actually make you “more focused” and help you get a lot more done in the time available.
2. Some procrastination can actually lead to better solutions.
Procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may seem counterintuitive, but Grant argues that giving yourself the time to think about a difficult problem could actually result in more creative approaches and, ultimately, better solutions. In fact moving too fast on a project might cause you to choose the easiest course of action rather than the best.
Allowing an idea to incubate is a powerful approach used by many creative thinkers, particularly those who are seeking to devise innovative new ideas instead of rehashing old concepts.
“One of the surprising virtues of procrastination is that part of your mind is working on a problem even if you are not consciously aware of it,” Grant says. “I think we need to normalize procrastination a little bit. Sometimes it’s not a sign of laziness; it's a sign that you're stuck or you haven't figured out a hard problem yet.”
3. Find a true dissenter — not just a devil’s advocate — to avoid groupthink.
Large organizations often suffer from groupthink, where the desire to reach a harmonious consensus can result in poor decisions. Disastrous strategic decisions at companies such as Blackberry and Blockbuster Video, Grant notes, can be traced back in part to pressure to conform to the opinions of others, especially those who are near the top of the corporate organizational chart. Grant calls this “deferring to the HiPPO” — the highest paid person’s opinion.
One way to help break this tendency is to find a “genuine dissenter,” Grant says, not just someone to play the role of devil’s advocate, but a person who truly holds a different opinion and is encouraged to express it. The problem with the devil’s advocate is that they are just playing a role, whereas a true dissenter has genuine passion and the courage of their convictions.
More than 40 years of research shows that inviting true dissenters into the conversation, even if they are wrong, causes decision quality to go up. “If it gets the majority to reconsider their view,” Grant stresses, “to take a step back and look at the criteria and gather new information … that is ultimately good for the process.”
4. Don’t discourage or heavily penalize failure.
In the investment business it’s often said that if you never fail then you aren’t taking enough risk. That’s true in many other industries as well. Taking a calculated risk that sometimes pays off, and sometimes doesn’t, is crucial to long-term success.
“Similar to my view of procrastination, I don't think we want to encourage people to fail,” he says. “But if you never fail, it means that you’re not aiming high enough. You’re not trying anything ambitious enough.”
Grant says company leaders often make the mistake of punishing failed outcomes, even if they are the result of a thorough, thoughtful and careful decision-making process. A lot can be learned from the experience of testing new, unproven ideas, and that can lead to greater success down the road.
“We should tone down the outcome accountability a little bit,” he recommends. “The success or failure of a project is not just about the result it produces. It's about the quality of the thinking that goes into it.”
5. Helping others can be the best path to your own happiness.
In an increasingly collaborative and networked business world, Grant observes, the people we trust the most are not just our most competent coworkers, but the ones who are willing to use their knowledge and skills to help others succeed. Being generous with your time can boost your own job satisfaction and create the sense that your work matters.
“By taking the initiative to support others,” he relates, “you can have an impact on people that you care about. That adds meaning and purpose to your work.”
Additionally, there is a generosity dividend that can materialize in other ways. “The time you spend solving other people's problems gives you knowledge and skills to help solve the organization's problems,” Grant says. “Then you’re in a much better position to see the 30,000 foot view of what's happening in the organization, and that makes you an expert in areas you otherwise wouldn't have learned. I think we tend to underestimate the value of these things.”