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Simone's OncOpinion

Influences on Work Productivity and Antisocial Behavior

Simone, Joseph V. MD

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doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000350345.00532.d4
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Anyone who has held, or aspires to hold, a management position must deal with the sometimes vexing issues of productivity and social behavior. Whether in a hospital, a practice, a laboratory, or a business enterprise, one faces a wide array of personalities and habits that people bring with them. Having a management role for four decades, this became a keen interest of mine. Below are several interesting and relevant reports on the issue.

The Hawthorne Effect

By coincidence, I grew up not far from the huge Hawthorne plant of Western Electric (forerunner of AT&T) at Cicero Avenue in the Chicago area. The plant gained fame from an unlikely source. The enlightened leadership of the plant recruited George E. Mayo, a psychologist and sociologist, and others in 1924 to examine productivity, employee turnover, and other work parameters. They examined the influences on productivity of pay levels, rest periods, and—the one I remember best—changes in lighting.

In their studies they found that increasing the lighting of the workroom increased productivity, but so did reducing the lighting, and the increase in productivity continued even when lighting was returned to its initial level. Mayo concluded that that the test room workers had turned into a social unit, enjoyed all the attention they were getting, and had a sense of participation in the project.

This feeling of being studied (or watched), and its positive influence on productivity, irrespective of the specific changes in the environment, became known as the Hawthorne Effect.

Increasingly Sophisticated Studies

These studies in the mid-1920s were followed by a growing interest in the effect of the immediate environment on social behavior beyond industrial productivity, including increasingly sophisticated studies of antisocial and criminal behavior.

For example, in 1982, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published the “Broken Window Theory,” based on the observation that an abandoned building with one broken window that is not fixed is often followed by the breakage by vandals of many other windows. If the broken window was fixed, breakage of other windows was much less likely. In subsequent years, the behavioral effect of degraded surroundings has been followed by an increasingly scientific approach to understand how this happens.

A well-designed series of Dutch studies recently published in Science (2008; 322:1681–1685) by Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg (“The Spreading of Disorder”) addresses the influence on antisocial behavior of degradation in the immediate environment such as graffiti, littering, and illegal parking. In one experiment the researchers hung useless paper fliers on bicycles in an alley that had a sign on the wall forbidding graffiti. There was no trash can in the alley. The alley was watched to see how many cyclists put the flier in their pockets for later disposal and how many just threw them on the pavement or put them on another bike. On another day they created the same setup except with graffiti on the wall. With no graffiti, 19 of 77 cyclists tossed the flier away, but more than two-thirds littered when the wall had graffiti.

In another study with a €5 note left sticking out of a mailbox, 13% of passers-by pocketed the note when the mailbox was in a clean environment compared with 23% when there was trash around. The authors used visual (e.g., graffiti), auditory (loud firecrackers), legal violations (illegal parking), and other factors to demonstrate that if people see one norm being violated, they are more likely to violate others, such as littering and stealing.

These and other studies have shown that disorder in the environment, including some that seem trivial by themselves, has a generalized negative effect on behavior.

‘Situational Prevention’

This finding has led to “situational prevention” by some communities to reduce crime and antisocial behavior. Authorities in Lowell, Massachusetts, found that the scrupulous and persistent cleanup of troubled neighborhoods was more effective than social services or law enforcement in this regard.

One could be influenced by these studies in several ways. One might pick up the candy wrapper that someone carelessly dropped in the corridor and put it in the trash, and maybe make it a habit. I acquired this habit not from reading studies, but from seeing my mentor do it.

Or one might pick up the paper towel on the floor of the rest room (gingerly, I am sure) and drop it in the trash. (Why are men, who often consider themselves jocks, so bad at hitting the waste bin with a wad of paper towel?) We all know that when one paper towel is on the floor, others will follow, maybe by us.

Another might understand that dying potted plants in the entryway of one's workplace, unrepaired floor tiles in the elevator, and even habitual gabfests in sight of waiting patients all signal that there is some level of disorder, and that this may perpetuate additional or even habitual antisocial or professionally unacceptable behavior by ordinary people, like you and me.

And finally, one might stretch the point to make a connection to the central thesis in Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, that “Great people aren't so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It's the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they've been given”—e.g., Bill Gates was fortunate to go to a private school with its own computer when this was extremely rare. Gladwell gives many other examples of why, in his view, people became great. He believes that individual traits play a smaller role in explaining success while social circumstances play a larger role.

As David Brooks commented in his column in the New York Times (16 Dec 2008), “Gladwell intelligently captures… the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, and memes…[that in the Obama Age] could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds, and cultures of achievement.”

From the candy wrapper to the attitudes of our parents, what is around us influences whether and how we mature, how we behave, how hard we work, and how much success we have. Genetics is powerful, but so is our milieu, which one can improve much more easily for ourselves, our children, and our co-workers.

My mother and father never read a scientific paper, but they knew this.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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