“Wealth of Nations” stole happiness from workers—here’s how we steal it back

The Office
The Office

Many Americans today are assembly-line workers—whether they know it or not. The reason can be traced back to Adam Smith, the father of modern economics.

Smith believed that when it came to work, people were fundamentally lazy. If you want people to work, he argued in his classic 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, you have to make it worth their while. And if you do make it worth their while—by paying them a decent wagewhat they actually do doesn’t matter very much.

This line of thinking helped Smith to envision the rise of the assembly line. In one passage he describes the workings of an imaginary pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straits it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head,” he writes, describing how much faster and more efficient this approach is than if workers “had all wrought separately and independently.”

 Micro-measuring employees’ performance has turned all kinds of work into factory work. Factories developed in the image of Smith’s hyper-efficient pin manufacturer during the industrial revolution. Today his influence has spread even further. Schools force teachers to follow detailed scripts for each day’s lesson plan. Doctors are pressed to perform “one-size-fits-all” medical care and usher patients through rapid-fire office visits to keep costs down. Micro-measuring and micro-managing employees’ performance has turned all kinds of work into factory work.

Do people like doing work this way? Of course not. But if Smith was right, they wouldn’t like any kind of work. All that mattered is that they get paid.

But had Smith actually discovered a unique insight into people’s attitudes toward work? Or had he invented an attitude toward work that was then brought into being by the assembly line?

In the natural sciences, we’re accustomed to distinguishing between discovery and invention. Discoveries give us information about how the world works. Inventions use those discoveries to create objects or processes that make the world work differently. The discovery of bacteria leads to the invention of antibiotics. The discovery of atomic energy leads to the invention of bombs and power plants.

 Our theories about human nature can actually change our nature. Although discoveries often have moral implications, they do not have moral dimensions. If someone were to suggest that the Higgs boson shouldn’t exist, we’d wonder what mind-altering substance he’d ingested. Inventions, on the other hand, often do have moral dimensions. We routinely ask whether the hydrogen bomb or genetically modified crops should exist.

In the natural sciences, the distinction between discovery and invention is pretty clear. The issue gets blurrier in the social sciences—particularly when it comes to discussions about the basic characteristics of human nature.

In my new book Why We Work, I argue that Smith’s ideas about human nature were much more invention than discovery. His arguments about what people were like were false. But they gave rise to a process of industrialization that made them true.

This is a testament to the unique power of the social sciences. Theories about the planets don’t change the behavior of the planets. But our theories about human nature can actually change our nature—especially when those theories become embodied in important social institutions like workplaces and schools. Today, we can see Smith’s legacy in factories, offices, call centers and warehouses.

  Most people want a good deal more from work than a simple paycheck.  But we don’t have to accept work as inevitably joyless drudgery. Instead, we should ask ourselves whether the way we work is the way it should be.

People won’t work without pay. But research by management scholars like Jeffrey Pfeffer, Adam Grant, and Amy Wrzesniewski makes it clear that most people want a good deal more from work than a simple paycheck. Satisfied employees are challenged and absorbed by their work. They have a measure of autonomy and discretion. And they use that autonomy and discretion to achieve a level of mastery or expertise.

Satisfied workers have opportunities for social engagement. They enjoy the trust and respect of both peers and supervisors. Finally, and most importantly, satisfied workers find the work they do meaningful. They understand how their work makes a difference in the world and makes other people’s lives better.

This applies as much to blue-collar workers as to artists, creatives and white-collar professionals. When people are happier with their jobs, they become happier with their lives—and they become better workers, making their organizations run more productively and profitably.

Take the example of Interface, a carpet manufacturing company. About twenty years ago, Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface, realized that his company was poisoning the environment. Carpet making was a petroleum-intensive industry, and Interface’s environmental footprint was huge.

 When people are happier with their jobs, they become happier with their lives—and they become better workers. Anderson wondered what good it would do to leave his grandchildren with great wealth if the price of accumulating all that money was an uninhabitable planet. So he resolved to transform every aspect of Interface’s operations, moving to achieve a zero footprint goal by 2020. He assumed that the development of new production processes and a commitment to pollution control would cost money—a lot of it. But he was willing to sacrifice the bottom line to achieve a social good.

So Interface began to change what it makes, how it makes it and what it does with its waste. As of 2013, it had cut energy use in half, shifted to renewable energy, and cut waste to a tenth of what it was.

How much profit was sacrificed? None at all! Interface employees were so motivated by the opportunity to work for the common good—and challenged by the need to find innovative modifications of the production process—that their work became much more effective and efficient.

The company, realizing that its new mission would demand creative partnership from top to bottom of the organization, flattened its hierarchy and gave employees much more discretion and control over what they did. The strength of the company’s shared vision encouraged collaboration and cooperation. Progress toward sustainability required creative solutions. So a culture that encouraged openness and allowed for failure emerged.

The result of Anderson’s vision, twenty years out, is a company that remains extremely successful and is populated by employees who are eager to come to work every day.

 Almost every job gives employees the opportunity to make someone’s life better. But most people don’t enjoy workdays like this. Companies are so in the thrall of Smith’s erroneous assumptions that they are blind to the benefits that would come their way if they made the workplace into a place that people wanted to be. As distinguished economist John Maynard Keynes said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

If we are mindful of the role that ideology plays in shaping our conceptions of what people want from work, we can change the workplace. We can “invent” a human nature that is quite different from the ideas we inherited from Adam Smith.

It’s time to enrich the nature of work. Companies need to trust employees and give them discretion, autonomy, variety and challenge in what they do. Almost every job gives employees the opportunity to make someone’s life better. Just think how different even retail sales would be if salespeople were free to solve their customers’ problems rather than impelled to try to upsell them.

The result of a transformed workplace will be better doctors, lawyers, teachers, hairdressers, call center employees, factory workers and janitors—as well as healthier patients, better-educated students, and more satisfied clients and customers. And each of us will have had a hand in inventing a human nature that is worth living up to.

We welcome your ideas at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search