I once had a nice chair: be cautious of statistical studies

I once worked for a company that had nice office chairs.

It wasn’t a huge perk. They didn’t make a big deal of it. They didn’t even mention it.

But I liked it. There were days without much else to look forward to at work than that chair. So it helped.

When I was procrastinating on starting a project, the nice chair was there to sit in and get me started.

When a meeting didn’t quite go my way, I turned the corner and saw the chair and it brightened things a bit.

I worked for other companies, where chairs were good enough. Nothing wrong with them. They were comfortable. They did the job.

But, not once did I look forward to my chairs there. Just like the folks that bought them, I never gave them a second thought.

Does this mean managers should approve nice chairs for their staff to improve motivation and productivity? I doubt it. I’m sure that benefit would be hard to detect in a way managers desire: “Workers with the nice chair are 10% more productive!”

Part of it was the nice chair. Part of it was a little reminder that the owners thought enough about employees to even think about providing nice chairs without expecting anything in return. That last part doesn’t replicate in a ‘data-driven decision to drive results.’

After all, when employees catch wind that the managers made the decision to drive results, they realize there was no soul in the decision, the employee was an afterthought and, oh yeah, there’s the expectation of more productivity.

In that way, the chair might become more of a sore spot than a bright spot in a person’s day, because it becomes a reminder that there is an expectation to do more because of it, even though it’s not exactly clear what doing more is.

Maybe it does mean that managers who genuinely care about their workers in ways that show up like buying them nice chairs without any expectation on results might be more satisfying to work with than managers who ‘do what the data tell them.’

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Why we do the things we do

This Marginal Revolution post reminded me of something I encounter frequently, even with myself. The post excerpts a study:

In fact our conscious brain has surprisingly little grasp of what makes us decide to do one thing rather than another.  A telling example of this ignorance has been provided by Joe LeDoux and Michael Gazzaniga, two neuroscientists who conducted a study of patients with a severed corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, leaving the two sides of the brain unable to communicate with each other.  LeDoux and Gazzaniga gave instructions to these patients, via their right hemisphere (hemispheres can be targeted with instructions shown to either the left or right visual field), to giggle or wave a hand, then asked them, via the left hemisphere, why they were laughing or waving.  The patients’ left hemisphere had no knowledge of the instructions given to their right hemisphere, but the patients would nonetheless venture an explanation, saying that they were laughing because the doctors looked so funny or waving because they thought they saw a friend.  However implausible the answer, the patients were convinced they knew why they were acting in the way they were; but they were deluded in thinking so.  Their self-understanding was pure confabulation.

I often find myself in discussions with folks who can’t override their urge to start jabbing their mouth and simply say, I don’t know, why do you think what you think?

I, too, often find myself doing things that I find odd and when I search for an explanation, I find that my first explanation is usually one that would satisfy an external observer. But, then I dive deeper and find other reasons that weren’t intuitive, but were probably more important than the externally acceptable reason.

I’m cheap. I was a loyal shopper of Walmart, until Target opened across the street from it. Then I found myself in Target more often. Why? I’m cheap. I’m supposed to like the lower prices. And, at the time, there was a visible difference in most prices.

So, on several trips to Walmart and Target I “observed” myself. I asked myself questions. What’s keeping me from going to Walmart? Why am I going to Target?

Many things popped up. The Target parking lot isn’t as packed. I don’t have to walk as far. Target’s parking was clean. The store was cleaner and updated. The product displays were always in good order and the products were well presented. I would have to wait a long time to checkout at Walmart. At Walmart, it seemed like they shoved the products on the shelves.Target had some different products that I would like to browse. I wasn’t scared of the folks who shopped at Target. The folks who worked at Target seemed a bit less tired and a bit more engaged.

I came to find that it just wasn’t one reason. There were many. Some would say it was the overall experience. Maybe some mattered more than others, but they all mattered.

Walmart recognized this, too. They responded by improving on many of these things and have won me back, sometimes.

The depth and breadth of these reasons surprised me. I didn’t put conscious thought into any of these things until I first noticed my behavior was odd (not always going for the lowest price) and then decided to “observe” my behavior.

That exercise alone humbled me into being more willing to say, I don’t know, recognizing that he world is complex and the simple answer is often not the whole story. That reminds me of a favorite Oliver Wendell Holmes quote:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Supreme Court Justice, 1902 – 1932

Not sure I’d give my life for it, but it’s definitely worth more.