Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!
Emma Goldman | Return to the Office | Workers Rights | The Good Working Life | The Action Bias
I am experimenting with new ideas arising from participation in the Substack Grow seminars (as I discussed in The Work Futures Story). Along those lines I am revising the structure of the typical newsletter post, with a few short takes at the top, and a single longer section appearing last and behind the paywall (for paid subscribers)
One of the central discussion points in Substack Grow among the participants is the difficulty in deciding what to share with everyone and what to keep for the paid subscribers. This is an experiment in that domain.
Quote of the Moment
The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood lest it rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth? Who would make the policeman, the jailer, if woman were to refuse the incriminate breeding of children? The race, the race! shouts the king, the president, the capitalist, the priest. The race must be preserved, though woman be degraded to a mere machine.
| Emma Goldman
Return To The Office
Seeking a Return to Offices, Bosses Lost Leverage | Emma Goldberg handicaps managers versus managees in the push to return to the office:
R.T.O. plans have unfolded like a giant game of chicken. Executives told workers to come back to the office, then delayed their plans as Covid cases continued to spike. Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it was clear that it wasn’t. Workers got extra time at home, and extra leeway to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now some companies are expecting people back but have lost the leverage to enforce that because of the constant flux in deadlines.
“What we’ve decided to do is say, ‘What is working?’” said Joan Burke, head of human resources at DocuSign, which postponed four return-to-office dates before deciding not to require attendance for now. “Let’s learn from what’s working and put in place guardrails if we think things aren’t.”
New York lawmakers pass bill limiting Amazon’s use of worker productivity quotas in warehouses | Annie Palmer reports on NY state sounding more like Europe regarding warehouse worker protections:
New York lawmakers on Friday [2022-06-03] passed a bill that takes aim at Amazon’s use of production quotas in its warehouses.
The bill requires companies to disclose quotas to workers, and bars the company from implementing measures that prevent employees from taking breaks.
Amazon employees and worker advocacy groups have argued that Amazon’s focus on speed has led to an increase in workplace injuries.
The Good Working Life
Hilary Cottam is working on a series, The Work Project: Reimagining Work and Time, which is a gloriously sprawling mess, full of great insights. Here’s one, for example:
The good working life is baggy and expansive. You have time to do a good job. You have time to be outside, to nurture relationships, time to care, time simply to be. All the really important things require time; ‘disposable time’.
She relates the story of an experiment at Kellogg’s ninety years ago, a shift to a six-hour workday:
One of the most interesting experiments in working time was started ninety years ago, in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg’s, the largest manufacturer of breakfast cereals in the world, made a revolutionary offer to its workforce: shorter working days. Almost all of the 1,500 workers were offered six-hour shifts, in place of their former eight hour working day, for the same pay.
Household studies conducted at the time show that workers did not consider their freedom remarkable. They expected that modernity in the form of the mass industrial technology revolution would mean that eventually everyone would work less. The experiment was an instant success. The company reaped dividends in the form of higher productivity, reduced absenteeism, turnover and accidents whilst the workers recorded rich lives with time to care, make, converse. They felt ease, with flourishing, whole lives.
The Kellogg’s experiment is about the re-positioning of work. For a short period of time in Battle Creek the job was simply a part of life. Today most of us find ourselves subsumed in a culture which prioritises work and wages above all. Culture in all its forms: making, playing, meeting has been re-categorised as a consumption good, things we buy with our wages. But the household studies of Kellogg’s workers tell of something else: the way that the gaps in between, the bits of life that household interviewees called ‘nothing special’, were also the bits that created good lives. Journalists who visited Battle Creek, [reported a common theme](https://tupress.temple.edu/book/3283): that people had ‘more life’.
What is a good working life? A good working life is making time.
The Kellogg’s experiment ended, paradoxically, by unionization, where organizers argued the workers could make more money with eight-hour shifts, alas.
The Action Bias: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!
I was alerted to a study about the action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers by my friend Paul Kedrosky (to whom I also owe the title of the section and newsletter issue).
Consider the penalty kick in soccer. Goalkeepers chose an action to take prior to the penalty kick before they can observe what the kick direction will actually be. It’s something like rock-paper-scissors, where the goalies chose to jump right or left, or to stay put in the middle of the goal, and then the kick is launched.
A group of economists analyzed the penalty kicks in top leagues and guess what?
Given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left.
The researchers came up with the hypothesis that ‘a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action’.
This would seem to be counter to normal expectations, considering the importance of minimizing goals made in penalty kicks.
The seemingly biased decision making is particularly striking since the goalkeepers have huge incentives to make correct decisions, and it is a decision they encounter frequently.
But they don’t ‘stand there’. Why? According to norm theory — a principle arising from the research of Daniel Kahneman1 and D. T. Miller — people have a stronger emotion response to outcomes that arise from what are considered abnormal causes. Since the norm is to jump right or left on penalty kicks, goalkeepers feel worse when they fail to block a shot by staying in the center. This leads to the action bias in this situation, and, in many others that follow a similar pattern.
How many bad decisions are made every day because of action bias? Consider your own experience in business. In my case, I have witnessed countless situations where seemingly rational groups would reject continuing a course of action and instead decide to take a new action — reorganizing, changing marketing strategy, or making drastic staffing changes — despite a lack of real evidence that it would accomplish the hypothetical desired end. And all done in service to the belief that taking action (and perhaps getting it wrong) is better than staying the course, and possibly getting it wrong through inaction. (If you have any examples, please contribute in the comments.)
Don’t get me wrong: if the action considered is supported by evidence, fine. Inaction is not per se better.
The question to ask: is our impulse to take action driven by our aversion to the potential unease of taking the less common path and coming up short? If so, the action bias is twisting your thinking.
How many times have you heard ‘Don’t just do something! Stand there!’. Never, I bet.
Another example of this again from the domain of sports is the fourth down conversion. The conventional thinking was until recently that an attempt to convert a fourth down (to attempt a conventional play instead of kicking the ball for a punt or field goal) was at best a 50/50 proposition. However, in 2005 Cal-Berkeley professor David Roemer ran the numbers and found that the norm was wrong:
A team facing fourth-and-goal within five yards of the end zone is better off, on average, trying for a touchdown.
At midfield, on average, there is an argument to go for any fourth down within five yards of a first down.
Even on its own 10-yard-line -- 90 yards from the end zone -- a team within three yards of a first down is marginally better off, on average, going for it.
In this case, football coaches still have an aversion to attempting the conversion, because the norm is so deeply engrained in the sport, and in their lived experience. In this case, they are weighing one action against another, not action against inaction, but the unease around bucking the norm definitely has an impact.
In all cases, any change in behavior by the goalkeepers or the football coaches will change the dynamics of the games involved. If more goalkeepers start to stand still instead of leaping right or left, penalty kickers will adapt, and the numbers and norms will change.
And action bias reaches out into other elements of the human sphere. For example, taking vitamins. $35 billion is spent every year on dietary supplements, some of which are dangerous — like beta-carotene — even when medical authorities advise against them.
That’s the action bias: ‘a desire, all else equal, to err toward harms of commission rather than omission’, as Peter Ubel framed it.
And, as I note in the tweet above, people would rather ‘choose a 10% chance of death from cancer surgery than a 5% chance of death from leaving the cancer untreated’.
This is action bias overwhelming rational thought, and I am certain it happens in corporate boardrooms, every day.
The Nobel laureate and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow.