Work, Meaning, and Choice
Work, Meaning, and Choice

Work, Meaning, and Choice

The lack of choice, which annoys me when it concerns my car or computer, has far greater implications for the modern workplace. Much has been said and written about making work meaningful, but much of it boils down to this: there is a strong correlation between job satisfaction and the amount of decision-making freedom a worker enjoys.

April 1 st 2004

My car has a feature that was designed to make driving a little easier and a bit safer. When the car is being driven at dusk, the head and tail lights automatically switch on as daylight begins to fade. I don't have to make the effort to turn the lights on; I don't have to worry about forgetting to do so.

The computer program I am using to write this column tries to be equally helpful, if not even more so. If I misspell a word, it will automatically correct it without being asked. It will also determine whether letters need to be capitalized, assign numbers to lists, and determine the format of paragraphs and bullet points.

Since this all sounds so helpful, I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that I find these features terribly annoying. There are practical reasons for my irritation: if I wish to flash the car's headlights to signal that it's safe for a transport truck to pull into the lane in front of me, I can't. If I wish to start a sentence without a capital letter, or re-number an existing list of items, I must wrestle the computer into submission first.

More significantly, though, I resent these features because they deprive me of choice. The engineers at General Motors and Microsoft seem to think they know what I want, and they've pre-programmed their products to deliver. The technological advances that promise flexibility and variety are instead being used to limit my options.

The lack of choice, which annoys me when it concerns my car or computer, has far greater implications for the modern workplace. Much has been said and written about making work meaningful, but much of it boils down to this: there is a strong correlation between job satisfaction and the amount of decision-making freedom a worker enjoys.

Self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that human beings have an innate tendency toward growth and development and naturally seek to master challenges. However, their context and environment can either support or thwart these natural inclinations. (For more on this, see here.)

SDT holds that negative human behaviour can be explained in terms of basic needs having been thwarted, a view that would be rejected by those of the various faiths that believe sin affects human actions. However, when it comes to the study of worker satisfaction, portions of the theory are quite appropriate. When applied to the workplace, the theory suggests that an "autonomy-supportive" work climate fulfills a worker's need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, workers are usually motivated and well-adjusted.

Perhaps the academics behind self-determination theory are stating the obvious when they apply their conclusions to the study of job satisfaction. But how is meaningful workplace choice established? And how much is enough?

For an employer, there are pressing reasons to avoid giving employees too much choice. Discussion and consultation takes time and doesn't result in decisions as quickly as a management dictate does. Many job types don't lend themselves well to worker input: whether it's the task of a production worker or a front-office typist, the work appears to require speed and repetition, not creativity and choice.

On the other hand, the situations where employees are required to make all the choices can be as bad as or worse than those where worker input isn't sought. I've been involved with workplaces where the employer essentially abdicated all authority and responsibility and left the employees to their own devices. When management refuses to manage, workers are left making choices that they are not equipped to make and arriving at decisions on matters that aren't their responsibility.

As the old beer commercial says, "It's all about balance." A healthy workplace allows workers to make meaningful choices about job design, task completion—even the direction and future of the company—without allowing management to abandon the task of directing the enterprise. The worker assigned to a repetitive production station might be given some micro choices: the order in which the tasks are performed, the design of the work area, problem-solving, perhaps even the timing of breaks. But macro participation in decision-making is also important: input into the design of the product, the arrangements of shifts and production methods, even the direction of the company. Allowing such participation might, in the short term, appear to slow production or increase its cost. But in the long term, job satisfaction can reduce employee turnover and absenteeism and improve production levels and product quality. Investing in choice makes sense.

Trade unions have a responsibility in this area as well. Labour's approach to the workplace too often mirrors that of the production-focused employer. If the union's focus is only on maximizing the economic well-being of its members, choice is not important. In fact, the more widgets the worker can produce per hour at a repetitive-task work station, the more power the union has in demanding a wage increase or overtime improvements. On the other hand, if a union takes a holistic view of the worker, and ranks workplace participation and job satisfaction as a high priority, it can do much to improve the lot of its members.

Human beings are created with amazing capabilities: to innovate, to problem-solve, to motivate, and to be motivated. These gifts cannot be replicated by even the most sophisticated machine. Where an employee is denied the opportunity to make meaningful choices in the workplace, an invaluable resource is being squandered.

I've finally figured out a way to change the settings on my word processor so that it stops trying to think for me. I can now choose to misspell a word or to begin a list with a number other than one. Creating a workplace context where workers have meaningful choices is not as easy as pressing a few buttons. But it's well worth the trouble to promote a climate where the worker is far more than a machine, an environment that recognizes and nurtures the creative gifts unique to human beings. And it makes long-term business sense to do it as well.

I haven't figured out a way to re-program my car's automatic headlights, and perhaps someday I'll replace it with one that gives me the freedom to make my own decisions, enlightened or otherwise. And when I make that change, I'll do well to consider whether the manufacturer of my next car gives its employees the responsibility of making meaningful choices in their workplace. Then I will have the pleasure of knowing not only that the workers experienced job satisfaction in building the car but also that, as a result, it is better built—and perhaps even missing those annoying features that deprive me of choice.

Topics: Vocation
Ed Bosveld
Ed Bosveld

At the time of these Comment contributions, Ed Bosveld was Ontario Provincial Director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an independent Canadian trade union representing more than 45,000 members. He served as part of the union's national management team as well as its provincial organzer and legal affairs coordinator.


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