Designing jobs to provoke revenge

Classical economics assumes we behave rationally. When faced with an offer, we will take what we are given or take as much as we can get without misgivings. There's no way we could rationally turn down what is offered, unless is involved hidden costs, penalties or obligations. Behavioral economics contradicts this assumption. We reject offers that seem unfair to us. We turn down the deal to make a point about the injustice. We'll even retaliate against those who seek to rip us off, violate our sense of fairness or betray our trust. We act as if we have a conscience or moral code that precludes selling out or taking the bait when an offer seems one-sided against us.

This irrational behavior pattern got me thinking about the design of jobs. Most job designs I've observed seem profoundly unfair to me. Research in behavioral economics tells us to expect lots of revenge from employees when their job designs seem unfair to them. Here's some of revenge I've seen repeatedly in workplaces that could easily be the result of job designs:
  • hiding behind job descriptions, making excuses, avoiding responsibility, failing to take initiative
  • hiring incompetent candidates, staffing the empty positions with overly compliant applicants
  • taking extra long breaks, sitting on the clock, getting paid for inactivity
  • sabotaging the output, leaving essential components out of the assembly, failing to check the benchmarks
  • spreading rumors about others' character traits, abuses of power or deceptive practices
  • shooting the messenger, discrediting sources of strategic insight, diminishing the stature of those close to the customers
  • going overboard to make others look bad, making a show of ambition to embarrass others

These forms of revenge could get provoked by many different facets of a job design. Here are some design features that often get regarded as unfair by an individual:
  1. how much I'm getting paid and how that compares to others' compensation
  2. how I fall under new policies, penalties or pressures while others get exempted
  3. what standards I've been expected to meet in very little time without sufficient resources
  4. how much I'm expected to do and how that compares to others who seem under-worked
  5. how little I'm kept informed of and what those in-the-know are privileged to comprehend
  6. how often I get corrected or criticized and how others "get off easy" or go unnoticed
  7. how little say I had in who I work with and how those staffing decisions got made
  8. what responses I get when I make suggestions or call attention to problems
  9. who gets listened to and how they've learned to tell higher ups what they want to hear
  10. why I missed out on the promotion and the rationale given for advancing the other person

From this list, you can discern that I view job design more holistically than the list of responsibilities and accountabilities. I view jobs as experience designs that also define opportunities to make a difference. In my next post, I'll explore how to avoid all these provocations of revenge with built-in injustices.

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