Tag Archives: Work

Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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Me On Fox Friday

Friday I’ll appear on The Independents, which airs on Fox Business TV at 9pm EST, discussing “The Rise Of The Machines.”

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Why Broken Evals?

This review article published 36 years ago shows that it was well known back then that teacher evaluations by college students are predictably influenced by time of day, class size, course level, course electively, and more. Thus one could get more reliable teacher evaluations by building a statistical model to predict student evaluations using these features plus who taught what, and then using each teacher coefficient as that teacher’s evaluation. Yet colleges almost never do this. Why?

Actually, most orgs also use known-to-be broken worker evaluation systems:

There is a lot of systematic evidence on the connections between job performance and career outcomes. … The data shows that performance doesn’t matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations. That includes the effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects. …

[For example,] supervisors who were actively involved in hiring people whom they favored rated those subordinates more highly on performance appraisals than they did those employees they inherited or the ones they did not initially support. In fact, whether or not the supervisor had been actively engaged in the selection process had an effect on people’s performance evaluations even when objective measures of job performance were statistically controlled. (more)

So why don’t firms correct employee evaluations for this who-hired-you bias? And it isn’t just this one bias; there are lots:

Extensive research on promotions in organizations, with advancement measured either by changes in position, increases in salary, or both, also reveals the modest contribution of job performance in accounting for the variation in what happens to people. In 1980, economists … observed that salaries in companies were more strongly related to age and organizational tenure than they were to job performance. Ensuing research has confirmed and extended their findings, both in the United States and elsewhere. … One meta-analysis of chief executive compensation found that firm size accounted for more than 40 percent of the variation in pay while performance accounted for less than 5 percent. (more)

An obvious explanation here is that coalition politics dominates worker evaluations. Coalitions like being able to ignore job performance to favor their allies and punish their rivals. Winning coalitions tend to be benefiting from the current broken rules. But, you might ask, why don’t people at the top put a stop to this? Doesn’t allowing politics such free reign hurt overall org performance? This story hints at an answer:

A few years ago, Bob, the CEO of a private, venture-backed human capital software company, invited me to serve on the board of directors as the company began a transition to a new product platform and sought to increase its growth rate and profitability. Not long after I joined the board, in the midst of an upgrading in management talent, the CEO hired a new chief financial officer, Chris. Chris was an ambitious, hardworking, articulate individual who had big plans for the company— and himself. Chris asked Bob to make him chief operating officer. Bob agreed. Chris asked to join the board of directors. Bob agreed. I could see what was coming next, so I called Bob and said, “Chris is after your job.” Bob’s reply was that he was only interested in what was best for the company, would not stoop to playing politics, and thought that the board had seen his level of competence and integrity and would do the right thing. You can guess how this story ended— Bob’s gone, Chris is the CEO. What was interesting was the conference call in which the board discussed the moves. Although there was much agreement that Chris’s behavior had been inappropriate and harmful to the company, there was little support for Bob. If he was not going to put up a fight, no one was going to pick up the cudgel on his behalf. (more)

People at the top play coalition politics as hard as anyone. Rules to limit politics at lower levels can hurt lower level allies of top people, and can set expectations that limit politics at higher levels. When mob bosses who are best at violence rise to the top of a competition for boss-hood, why should they and their allies favor non-violent criteria for how to pick bosses?

Some more data: Continue reading "Why Broken Evals?" »

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Boss Hypocrisy

In our culture, we are supposed to resent and dislike bosses. Bosses get paid too much, are mad with power, seek profits over people, etc. In fiction, we are mainly willing to see bosses as good when they run a noble work group, like a police, military, medicine, music, or sport group. In such rare cases, it is ok to submit to boss domination to achieve the noble cause. Or a boss can be good if he helps subordinates fight a higher bad boss. Otherwise, a good person resents and resists boss domination. For example:

The [TV trope of the] Benevolent Boss is that rarity in the Work [Sit]Com: a superior who is actually superior, a nice guy who listens to employee problems and really cares about the issues of those beneath him. … A character that is The Captain is likely, but not required, to be a Benevolent Boss.
Contrast with Bad Boss and Stupid Boss. Compare Reasonable Authority Figure. In more fantastic works, this character usually comes in the form of Big Good. On the other hand, an Affably Evil character can be a benevolent boss with his mooks, as well.
In The Army, he is often The Captain, Majorly Awesome, Colonel Badass, The Brigadier, or even the Four Star Badass and may be A Father to His Men.
For some lucky workers, this is Truth in Television. For a lot of other people, this is some sort of malicious fantasy. (more)

But here is a 2010 (& 2011) survey of 1000 workers (30% bosses, half blue collar):

Agree or completely agree with:

  • You respect your boss 91%
  • You think your boss trusts you 91%
  • You think your boss respects you 91%
  • You trust your boss 86%
  • If your job was on the line, your boss would go to bat for you 78%
  • You consider your boss a friend 61%
  • You would not change a thing about your boss 59%
  • Your boss has more education than you 53%
  • You think you are smarter than your boss 37%
  • You aspire to have the bosses job 30%
  • You work harder than your boss 28%
  • You feel pressure to conform to your bosses hobbies/interests in order to get ahead 20% (more; more; more)

In reality most people respect and trust their bosses, see them as a friend, and so on. Quite a different picture than the one from fiction.

Foragers had strong norms against domination, and bosses regularly violate such norms. We retain a weak allegiance to forager norms in fiction and when we talk politics. But we also have deeper more ancient mammalian instincts to submit to powers above us. And also, our competitive economy probably tends to make real bosses be functional and useful, and we spend enough time on our jobs to see that.

Many other of our cultural presumptions are probably similar. We give lip service to them in the far modes of fiction and politics, but we quickly reject them in the near mode of concrete decisions that matter to us.

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Reward or Punish?

Many reality TV shows, like Project Runway, Hell’s Kitchen, or Survivor, focus on punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. Not only do viewers seem to find that more interesting, it actually works better to incentivize performance (many quotes below). Punishment works better to encourage lone behavior, to encourage behavior in a group, and as a tool for letting some group members encourage others.

The puzzle is that in most of our social worlds we instead focus on rewarding the best, not punishing the worst. If you search for “punish reward” you will mostly find the issue raised about how to treat kids; we are mainly willing to use punishment flexibly on them. And this when young kids are the main exception – for them punishment works worse. For adults, we tend to limit punishment’s use to extreme behavior that we all strongly agree is bad, like crime. And when you ask adults, they much prefer to be part of a group that uses rewards, not punishment.

As a college teacher, I expect that I’d get more effort from most students by regularly pointing out the worst student in the class than the best. But I also expect students to hate it and give me low evaluations. Similarly, I expect that if I wrote the occasional post criticizing a bad blog commenter here, instead of praising a good one, I’d get more change in commenting behavior. But I also expect that person to complain long and loud about how I was biased and unfair, and others to come to their defense. I expect a lot less complaining about bias in picking the best.

In both the class and comment cases, I expect people to see me as mean and cruel for punishing the worst, but kind and generous for rewarding the best. This even though all of these effects are relative – punishment would raise the rest of the class, or the rest of the commenters, up above the worse.

Note that rewarding the best is in practice more elitist than punishing the worse; punishing creates an underclass, not an overclass. And in fact our hyper-egalitarian forager ancestors were quite reluctant to overtly reward or praise; they focused their social coordination on having the group punish norm violators. Our hyper sensitivity to being punished, and our elaborate instinctual strategies to give excuses and to coordinate to retaliate against any who might suggest we should be punished, are probably human adaptations to that forager history. And they make us especially unwilling to accept punishment by an authority, instead of by the informal consensus of the group.

This seems an interesting example of our seeking to avoid aspects of the forager way of life. Our forager evolved aversion to being singled out for social shame is so strong that we’d rather create elites instead. At least this applies when we are relatively rich and comfortable. If we really feared being destroyed for lack of sufficient efforts, as farmers often did, we’d probably be a lot more eager to raise overall efforts by punishing the worse. I suspect that foragers themselves didn’t punish much in good times; punishment was invoked more, and mattered more, in hard times. In good times foragers probably more tolerated praising some as better, and weak forms of bragging.

In a more competitive future, with organizations and individuals that compete harder to survive, I’d expect more use of punishment, in addition to reward.

Today if you have a group that really needs to succeed, and to induce strong efforts all around, consider paying the social disruptions costs of punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. You will probably get more effort that way, even if people end up hating you and calling you evil for it. And if your group doesn’t punish and fails, know that your reluctance to punish was probably a contributing factor.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Reward or Punish?" »

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Real Drama

I’ve now seen all nine of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees. Metacritic.com rates Zero Dark Thirty highest at 95, but gives second highest at 94 to my favorite, Amour. (Intrade gives Argo, rated 84, a 72% chance, and Lincoln, rated 86, a 23% chance, to win.)

There’s an apt old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Which highlights the fact that while we like stories with drama, we don’t actually want drama in our lives. If you ignore the very end, and the fact that the characters are very high status artists, Amour is quite realistic and by far the drama most likely to actually be experienced by many of you. Which is why most folks don’t like it, because they don’t actually want to see realistic ordinary drama.

Amour is about a women who gets sick and then dies. I was stuck by the fact that what most bothered her and her husband were the insults to her pride. They could mostly handle the pain, the drudgery, and the loss of opportunity. But the loss of status, oh that stung.

I was struck by something similar lately while reading the classic Studs Terkel book Working, in which dozens of ordinary workers tell how they feel about their jobs. While they sometimes complain about being bored or tired, they seem mostly ok with this. What really bothers them is when other people don’t give them as much respect or pay as they think they deserve. Again, it is status that seems to drive them most.

I found this quote interesting:

I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to. (Studs Terkel, Working)

I’d guess that if building makers could get this if they were willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for it, and that it doesn’t happen because such workers don’t want it that much. Anyone know how much of a pay cut people take to get their name in the credits of a movie? How much of a pay cut to get your name shown as author of a novel? Do artists care more about getting visible public credit more than construction workers? If so, why?

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Impatient Idealism

Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.

But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.

Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.?

This seems related to the puzzle of why people don’t leverage the power of compound interest to donate to help the future needy, instead of today’s needy. Some argue that the future won’t have any needy, or that helping today’s needy automatically helps future needy, at a rate growing faster than investment rates of return. I’m pretty skeptical about both of these claims.

One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts). But if you save money to help the future needy, or if you invest now in skills useful in future idealistic projects, that is less clearly a signal of altruism, because you might later change your mind and use that money or those skills for other purposes.

So to signal your youthful idealism to potential associates, you must spend the money and time now, even if such spending is less effective toward the idealistic cause. But hey, at least the cause gets something.

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On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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Why Not Agents For All?

Top actors, writers, and athletes have agents, who help them find good jobs, in exchange for a small part of their income. But having an agent is pretty rare – why don’t the rest of us have agents?

You might think its only worth paying an agent 5% of your income for jobs where wages vary by large factors, and that most people’s wages are pretty much set by their occupation, education, etc. Not true, however. Consider: workers in the same occupation, with the same observable experience, school, etc. can easily earn 30% more, or 30% less, just based on the industry they work in. For example, in the auto industry both janitors and truck drivers make twice the salary of janitors and truck drivers in the “eating and drinking place” industry. (More on industry wage differences below.)

Having an agent can also signal high quality, as agents usually won’t represent low quality folks. Also, while prior employers, often avoid being honest about your prior experience to potential future employers, agents can have incentives to be more honest, being repeat players with reputations to protect.

For an interesting example of ordinary people with “agents”, consider Giving What We Can (GWWC), an organization that “asks members to donate at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities.” Since GWWC wants to promote charity donations, it wants its members’ to have high incomes, all else equal. So affiliated folks advise members on how to find better paying jobs. If they put enough effort into this, I can believe members might actually earn more on net than they otherwise would, even after accounting for their 10% charity donation.

That promised info on industry wages differences: Continue reading "Why Not Agents For All?" »

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What Is Your Sermon?

Here is a simple model of intellectuals. It is wrong, but insightful:

  1. Intellectuals discover insights, and better intellectuals find more and better insights.
  2. Insights can be ranked by net value of personal effort. This net value includes how much it would matter if the idea was taken more seriously, and a person’s marginal ability to achieve this.
  3. Insight value falls with the number of others well placed and motivated to pursue an idea, and by the effectiveness of effort to sustainably change opinions on the subject. Value tends to fall with costs to explain and explore a subject, and with the previous efforts already made.
  4. Insights vary greatly in value. Topics vary in how unequally distributed are their insight values, and with the potential for very large values.
  5. Usually, insight value is distributed so unequally that one’s best insight is a substantial fraction, even most, of the value of all one’s lifetime insights.
  6. When value is very unequal, intellectuals best help the world by following a career plan of first mostly searching for their one best insight, and then mostly promoting and developing that insight.
  7. Intellectuals following this search-then-promote career plan would do most preaching in the second half of their career. At least if a lot of promotion is possible.
  8. Greatly diminishing returns to promotion efforts might justify ending promotion of your best insight, and returning to a search for more, or promoting your second best insight.
  9. An intellectual uncertain about which insight is best might pursue several while studying them, but the world is better off if they soon focus on their one best guess.
  10. If “preaching” differs from “teaching” in focusing more on fewer bigger insights, then intellectuals promoting their one best insight are roughly “preaching” “sermons”.

In reality, the tendency to preach as a function of status seems to have a roughly slanted-N shape: /\/. While non-intellectuals preach little, amateur intellectuals preach a lot, and even more early in their career. Among academics, high status folks often find a new angle very early in their career, and then publish variations on that for the rest of their career. In contrast, low status folks tend to produce a steady stream of publications, which don’t much build on each other.

Getting the Nobel prize often triggers a burst of preaching, but mostly on the subject where the prize shows that their insight has long since won out, and doesn’t need promoting. The rest of their preaching is usually spread across many topics, rather than a single second best topic.

A lot of intellectual preaching is about the “insight” that one political ideology is better than others. Given the number of others motivated to promote each such idea, the marginal value of these promotion efforts by any one person must be very low.

Most of these deviations from the simple model can be seen as puzzles – we can ask what needs to be added to the simple model to explain them. Some possible missing elements:

  • Status – The freedom to preach may be seen as high status, with low status academics punished when they presume to take on this high status mark. Amateurs can more freely ignore such pressures.
  • Signaling – Common forms of preaching may be seen as too easy. If academics are mainly selected for being impressive, they need to do other things to show off.
  • Power – Academics tied to powerful social institutions could make such institutions uncomfortable by endorsing disruptive ideas. Preaching by such academics needs to be channeled into institutionally approved directions.

If you are an intellectual, occasionally ask yourself:

  1. Of all your insights so far, which is most worth devoting a life?
  2. If you are young and promoting, shouldn’t you keep looking instead?
  3. If you are old and not yet focused on promoting your best, isn’t it time?

That is: What is your sermon?

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