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Go Ahead and Bore Me -- You're Not Paying Me Enough to Think

Sept. 27, 2013
New research suggests that nobody wants to be challenged in their jobs anymore.

We’ve run plenty of articles on how to develop, motivate and retain employees, and probably an equal number on how manufacturers are trying to address a perceived shortage of skilled workers in the U.S. This might be the first time, though, that we’re running an item that indicates maybe all of those efforts are a waste of time because, quite frankly, nobody wants to be challenged in their jobs anymore.

A couple professors (okay, right there I probably lost some of you when you realized these assumptions are being made by academics) have studied something they call “effort aversion” (a condition which sounds a lot like what my grandpa used to call “lazybones”). Effort aversion, according to Peter Ubel, a marketing professor at Duke University, and David Comerford, an assistant professor at Stirling University in the UK, is a term that attempts to explain why people choose to put forth less effort at their jobs, even if it means less personal satisfaction. And yes, they’ve published preliminary study results in an academic journal (to read the full article will cost you $41.95, but if you’re averse to expending that kind of effort, I’ll give you the gist for free).

“We found even when an effortful job would be more interesting and enjoyable than one requiring less effort, people might price themselves out of the job market because they feel their effort needs to be rewarded,” Ubel says.

Comerford adds, “Ask someone which of two jobs they like better, and they will often pick the more interesting job, even if it requires more mental or physical effort. But ask them how much the two jobs should pay, and now that their mind is focused on wages, they often conclude that all that extra effort ought to be rewarded, otherwise they will take the boring job.”

In one study, the researchers asked a group of students to participate in the making of a short film. Each student was offered the choice of two roles in the film: a worker (somebody whose main task would be trying to solve a word puzzle) or an on-looker (somebody who just sits and watches others). Although two-thirds (66%) of the students said they found the role of worker more enjoyable, only 18% said they would try to solve the word puzzles no matter whether they would be paid more than the on-lookers.

“If you put the issue of wages in front of people, all of a sudden that becomes a primary concern,” Ubel says, stating the rather obvious. “They are focusing on what they perceive as fair compensation, rather than nonmonetary aspects of the job, such as social value or even whether the job is interesting.”

“I can see lots of good reasons why your gut would tell you not to work unless you get paid more than you’d get for doing nothing, but the lesson I take from these studies is that that reaction risks leaving you bored and unhappy.”

The lesson I take from these studies is that maybe all those companies with openings for such jobs as truck drivers and machinists and warehouse workers have been going at it all wrong. Maybe they need to market their jobs in a way that will attract more applicants, something like, “Don’t Stress Out about This Job! We’ll Pay You Not to Think!”

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