Mark Pearl

I recently listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcast shows called “The Hidden Brain”. The title of the episode was “Don’t Panic: Stories of Coping Amongst Chaos” and while I enjoyed the whole episode a particular segment stood out to me. It was about a study conducted by two British psychologists around ‘The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices’.

The Study

In the study they got people to sit down and work in artificial office environments.They then measured the impact of these environments on the participants feelings of psychological comfort, job satisfaction, and physical comfort.

There were four different arms to the experiment:

1) In the first arm of the experiment the office was very, very minimalist - just a chair, a pencil, paper, no distractions. They found that people did fine in that. They didn’t really like it. On average it suited some people but not everyone.

2) With the second approach there were more decorations in the office, there were pot plants, there were posters - you know, some distractions, and it felt friendlier. They found people liked that more.

3) In the third approach the researchers said to participants that they could organize the office how they liked. Bring in the posters, send away the posters, put the pot plants where you like or if you want, we’ll take the pot plants away for you, however you want. People loved that. They got so much more done. They felt happier. They were more productive - significantly more productive.

4) In the fourth experiment they said to participants arrange it however you like – pretty much the same as what they had done in the third approach, but after the room was setup the experimenter came in and said “I’m sorry, this isn’t appropriate for the experiment” and rearranged everything, putting it back to the way it was in the second part of the trial where people had been perfectly happy to work in these decorated offices.

What they found was the people in the fourth arm of the experiment weren’t happy with having someone come in, override their decisions, take away their control, take away their autonomy. They felt physically sick. And they hated everything about it. They hated the work.

In the fourth experiment people felt physically sick. They hated everything about it.

The parallels I can make

There are some parallels I can draw from this experiment and my own work experiences. I’ve worked in a place where our teams were given a lot of autonomy around how they did things. Teams were allowed to adjust processes, remove waste, customize their work environment to suit the members of the team.

In general this led to great results.

Then there was a shift in management. Managers left and other managers took over their roles. These managers saw the “chaos” in the teams. Teams were hard to report on because everyone did things differently. Managing was difficult. The managers pushed for standardization.

If you asked these managers how they felt about the changes they were introducing they still felt they were creating a great workplace. They would reason “look at other companies and what equivalent teams are allowed to do, our teams still have it good”.

What they didn’t realize was the people who really cared about their work felt overridden. They felt hate towards the changes. This felt like a step back. They felt disempowered.

Lessons learned

The lesson learned is whenever removing autonomy from a group or individual realize the impact and the emotions those people will go through. Sometimes the change is unavoidable. In those instances just recognizing that you are causing pain and empathising with those involved can make a huge difference on how people feel about the situation.


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