Irrational behavior

As a final task for my Beginner’s guide to Irrational behavior I had to write an assignment on the following:

Using what you’ve learned from this course so far, you’ll propose a 500 to 800-word solution to a problematic behavior.
1. Introduction: Describe a problematic behavior
2. Outline the existing research
3. Propose a solution

Acknowledgement and purpose
For years I have been questioning myself about the contrast between the way a customer is received in a State company and in a Private one.
There’s an obvious difference in the form employees address the general public if they are working for a real, ‘flesh and blood’ employer or if they are reporting to a ‘non real’ one – a more abstract institution called State. That is, there is no need for a deep research to understand that the former tend to be nicer, more attentive, careful and caring compared to the latter who are generally less patient, less nice (sometimes even ruder). Let me stand out that I am exclusively referring to Southern Europe countries.
I have always thought that this behavior was directly connected to job security, payment and bonuses (or lack of them). As it seems there are more determinant factors responsible for people’s commitment and motivation such as pride, sense of purpose and meaning (4.1 Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation 3:45).
Let me use a very common example: banks. On one side
1. A private bank clerk
• Direct CEO, to whom all report and whom they know personally and work with, on a daily basis
• Possibility of being made responsible directly in case of misperformance
• Possibility of career progression based on skills and good performance regardless age or working time
• Real possibility of being tapped on the shoulder for a well succeeded performance which might even culminate with a dinner out with the boss
2. A State bank clerk
• No direct CEO (just a hierarchical superior whom they have to report to and who takes no direct benefit from an employer’s good performance
• No direct possibility of being let go- unless under strict decision by an unknown responsible most of the times placed far away with no direct knowledge of the inner functioning of his workplace.
• No tapping on the shoulder every time a good decision is taken or good job performance
• No possibility of ‘going for a drink’ with the Head as most times they never meet personally
• Career progression only occurs in case of retirement or decease of a colleague
It was scientifically proved (Ariely, Kamenica & Prelec) that being ignored and not being acknowledged had a more tremendous impact on the individual’s performance than the monetary compensation given. The experiment that proved this theory shows clearly that the ones who are acknowledged are more willing to work (even for less money) than the ones ignored and those who had their papers shredded. (A group of MIT students was divided to be randomly assigned to these 3 conditions. After performing a task G1 were acknowledged, G2 Ignored and G3 had their paper shredded.)
So as I see it, this State clerk’s attitude results not from the financial incentives they might not get but from the lack of acknowledgement or, as Dan Ariely nicely put it in his video lecture ‘4.3 Acknowledgement 00:56’, it is due to the absence of the ‘a-ha’ factor. In a State structure there is a shared feeling of outperforming the colleagues and most times the superiors are too busy themselves trying to do well to even take the time to analyse their staff’s good performance. The stress is, most times, put in how bad you have done, rather than how well you actually did. By default, doing well is your job (which is, in fact, the purpose of any company) and therefore deserves no additional praising whereas a bad performance is due to receive a critical comment. But in fact ‘we view labor as meaningful to the extent that a) it is recognized and/or b) has some point or purpose’ (Ariely, Kamenica & Prelec).
In this Private/Sate example I present, demotivation seems to be crucial here. A further analysis would probably show that employees experience a feeling of absence of meaning, recognition and purpose, much also due to the actual economical deficitary situation the country is currently undergoing as well as the absence of a physically present hierarchical figure that could establish a social market relationship (Ariely &Heyman: 787) with his employees.
As I see it, the solution for this behavior would probably implicate a change in the working structure, too many times overformal. That change would have to consider:
• Giving the employees a sense of meaning to their work – withdrawing from the sense that what they do has no purpose – this could be done, for example, by asking the customers’ opinion on a particular employer via a questionnaire (which is never done in my country and in fact, we consider it to be quite ‘American’)
• Acknowledging the best performances publically within the company
• Investing on social market relationships bringing employee and employer closer by means of social arrangements within the company’s staff


9 thoughts on “Irrational behavior

  1. Great work getting this nicely done draft up! You are right, this is entirely non-academic and wholly accessible, as per instructions.

    The problematic behavior you are addressing is poor customer service because of diminished motivation to perform well due to a lack of acknowledgement. Is that right?


  2. Let me start by praising your written assignment, and later indulge in some minor criticism! 😉

    Your essay is very well written and right within the objectives of the assignment. In short, you identify a common problem, substantiate it with published research about it and propose a specific solution to the problematic behaviour you just described. And let me say your line of reasoning is quite interesting as also the solution you propose.

    But on the other hand, it might be argued that there is only anedoctal evidence for how common is the problem you address. Specifically, when you say “there is no need for a deep research”, I would argue that there’s always need for research, be it that confirms or denies your a priori hypothesis.

    Disclaimer: I also live and work in southern europe, on this planted garden by the seaside, and I’ve been confronted with the behaviour you describe in different places all over the world be it private or state owned companies. I guess it has more to do with management than with private or public ownership.

    Nice job! Congrats!


    • Thank you so much for your words Miguel! I find your analysis to be extremely accurate and useful and you really got the point of what I meant to convey. Using a second language can be tricky sometimes…
      I also agree that management is on the basis of this kind of behavior but that’s probably where the action must be taken: good and effective management should also consider the aspects of making people feel happy! 🙂 then who knows if things wouldn’t change?
      Obrigada pelo apoio!


      • Santos Graham

        I suppose you are talking about the planted by the seaside garden that we call Portugal… 🙂

        Although I’m flattered by your compliment, I don’t feel that I’m quite on par with one of the greatests poets of Portugal almost 900 years of history (although nowadays it might not look like, Portugal is the oldest european state), named Luiz Vaz de Camões. He was the man behind that expression which was written on his epic poem The Lusiads on the XVI century

        Anyway, if you feel like you can start by digging wikipedia about him and his epic poem, here and here


  3. Lovely insight! I have been facing problems with the state run telephone service here, and I totally agree with you. However behavioural interventions can only work IF implemented! Again they would be appropriate but not ‘sufficient’ to bring about the required change, the blockers being, the lack of fear of losing the job, & time based increments & promotions. See this:


      • Cristina,
        Interesting remarks about the importance of work acknowledgement. Should we consider “irrational” the happiness-differential among Middle-wo/men managers or supervisors based on the small power-differential they have over the workers in the lowest echelons of the organization’s pecking-order –regardless of the sector, private vs. public– they work at?


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