After having seen some inspiring clips by Schwartz on TED Talks, and upon suggestion from my friend David van Valkenburg, I ordered this small book and I can warmly recommend it to others.

It’s a short book of not even 100 pages and my hardcover is roughly the size of a pocket calendar. The book reminds me in many aspects of the Dutch classic “Intensieve Menshouderij” (by Jaap Peters and Judith Pouw, published by Scriptum in 2004, ISBN 9055943282). Good thing that something similar finally appears in English language.

Turning good work into bad

The main theme of the book is how rules and (financial) incentives turn good work into bad. Work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for most workers. The first chapter explores the reasons how this happened. The seeds go back to the father of the Free Market, Adam Smith (“The Wealth Of Nations”, 1976), and his belief in the power of incentives and the division of labour and the positive effects on productivity and efficiency. Smith wrote relatively nuanced on the subject (even though he is clear in his belief that people don’t like working, so they need pay to have them doing things), but people like Taylor and Skinner took his view and shapes it further into extremes. The rise of capitalism furthered the use of monetary incentives and along the way ignored majorly all the other satisfactions that might come from work. By doing so Smith’s mistaken believes became true, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By structuring work and the workplace in ways that stripped them from other forms of satisfaction, money became the only incentive for people.

This is another message of Schwartz. Philosophy, theory and points of view can affect behaviour. Smith’s theory was that people didn’t like to work, that they needed financial incentives to work anyway and that the work would be more efficient by dividing it and structuring it in particular ways. What happened was that the way work is structured in meaningless repetitive tasks means that there is little reason to do these jobs except for financial rewards. Schwartz’s conclusion is that human nature is more created than discovered.

Crafting work

The second chapter is titled ‘When Work Is Good’. Schwartz explores some examples. People don’t only follow official job descriptions, but often work to further their organisation’s goals despite their job description. This is called Job Crafting.

Discretion to make decisions, meaning (belief in the purpose of the enterprise and what we do) and engagement are essential for job satisfaction and have a sense of ‘calling’. Take them away by striving for efficiency and the desire of managers to be in control and that sense diminishes or disappears. With the calling goes also the commitment to do a good job.

The typical reactions of companies and other organisations to meet financial challenges, for example by stripping benefits, reducing on ‘core business’, making processes more efficient and controlling processes more strictly leads actually to a vicious circle where people will find less and less satisfaction and the cure will be counter-effective. If one would realise that happy people work better and smarter one could turn this vicious circle in a virtuous circle. Hardly any company ever does, however.

How to ruin good work

The next chapter delves deeper into how the process of turning good work into bad goes. Interestingly the difference between the two has less to do with the actual tasks than with the context (e.g. micromanagement) they are done in! As the title says, rules and incentives are regarded more important than integrity. One example is the situation of American teachers. The school system that is created with scripted curriculums is essentially created to have students do well at standard tests. Teacher quality and learning has become irrelevant and thereby teachers dumb-down and de-skill.

Even more destructive are incentive scheme. Intended to ensure top performance they often produce the opposite, including competition among employees, sub-optimisation, gaming the system and looking good in relation to the metric, which isn’t necessarily the same as delivering the product or service that the metric is meant to assess. This leads for example medical doctors to do either too little or too much, and neither is beneficial for our health. Another, maybe even clearer example is how billable hours for the legal profession pushed many from the question what was wrong or right towards the question what was profitable and what you can get away with.

Are two reasons better than one? Seems logic, but decades of research have shown that two reasons (like you are doing someone a favour and getting paid for it) actually can work against each other. Extrinsic motivation (like money) can undermine intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators can totally demoralize what originally is a moral act. Where one first would be triggered by ‘doing the right thing’ it suddenly becomes a question of ‘is it worth the price’.

Technology of ideas

The fourth chapter discusses the technology of ideas and elaborates on the above mentioned thought of how theory shapes behaviour. In ‘proper’ science there is (when done right) an ongoing conversation between theory and data. Theories organise data and explain the facts. Then theories are tested against facts. New facts force scientists to modify or discard inadequate theories.

In social sciences things can go otherwise. Instead of having to conform to facts, a proposed theory can actually shape the facts in ways that strengthen the theory. People are nudged into behaving in ways that support the theory. Theories in social science are therefore to be regarded as inventions rather than as discoveries. Discoveries tell us things about the world. Inventions use those discoveries to create things that make the world work differently. Inventions have moral dimensions.

Ideas matter. Because ideas are not objects, to be seen, purchased and touched, they can suffuse through the culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. And, ideas can have a profound effect on people even if the ideas are false! Technological inventions that don’t work will soon disappear, but false ideas can affect how people act as long as people believe in them and that can be for a very long time. Even worse, ideology can become true simply because people believe in it. The most powerful way to have this effect is when the ideology shapes social structures - like what happened in the 1930s in Germany.

Because ideologies (including the prevailing ones about work) have self-fulfilling properties we cannot expect them to die of natural causes. To kill them we must nourish alternatives, but it won’t be easy.

Can we improve things?

The final chapter is short and looks in alternatives. The arguments against non-monetary incentives are strong. Satisfied workers are engaged by their work. They do their work because they feel that they are in charge. Their workday offers them a measure of autonomy and discretion. This they use to achieve mastery and expertise. They are satisfied because what they do is meaningful. 

Economists express efficiency in terms of money, but what if it was expressed in terms of well-being instead? What is the psychic costs of today’s way of working could be turned in psychic benefits by redesigning workplaces? If one wants to go forward one has to start by asking questions. Why? What? How? When? As Schwartz writes on one of the final pages: “There will always be excuses to stay with what is familiar. There will always be reasons to resist reshaping both our conception of work and our conception of human nature. But I don’t think there are good reasons”. I agree with him!


TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4711-4181-2


Barry Schwartz has a couple of presentations on TED online. I can recommend watching some of them since they in a short time communicate some of the key messages from his book, partly told with different examples. A suggested order:


The Way We Think About Work Is Broken (2014)

What makes work satisfying? Apart from a paycheck, there are intangible values that, Barry Schwartz suggests, our current way of thinking about work simply ignores. It's time to stop thinking of workers as cogs on a wheel.

Why do we work: for “us” it has to be challenging, meaningful and engaging. Material reasons are poor reason. Why then is this not the case for most of the people? Technology of ideas. Bad thing-technology disappears, but bad ideas stick as long people believe in them. Adam Smith’s idea of incentivizing… The institute creates the people that it needs (“becomes as stupid…”). Human beings will be shaped by our theories and ideas.


Our Loss Of Wisdom (2009)

Aristotle thought that practical wisdom was the master virtue: wise man knows when and how to make the exception to every rule. Knows how to improvise. “A wise person is like a jazz musician, using the notes on a page, but dancing around them. Inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand”. A wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends upon experience.

If things go wrong, first response is to make more and new rules. Secondly, in addition to rules: incentives (to make “our” interest also “their” interest). Rules are necessary, but neither rules nor incentives are enough (no rule or incentive can be found to make the janitors do what they did).

Rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules why moral will to do the right thing is undermined by incentives.

Rules and incentives are a War on Wisdom. Procedures and schemes prevent (some) disaster, but what they ensure is mediocracy. No incentive system is ever smart enough, every incentive system can be subverted by ill-intend. Excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity. Firstly they demoralize the people engaged in the activity (creates people who are “addicted” to incentives, people who want to do a good job bail out, mentally or all together). Second they demoralize the activity itself - they take the morality out of the practice.


Using Our Practical Wisdom (2010)

This presentation has quite a lot of overlap with the above mentioned 2009 version, but some nuances are different and it’s illustrated with different examples - some of these incredible and hair raising!