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Wilful ignorance?

How our instincts fuel our workplace misconceptions

Humanity has always strived to understand the uncertain. We continually look to find the answers to the unknown, often to no avail.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. Together with his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Rosling embarked on a quest to combat ignorance and global misconceptions with a fact-based worldview in this literary triumph.

Rosling’s inspiration for his work came from observing an apparent ignorance to the world around us, even present in some of the world’s foremost thinkers. He asked questions about current world statistics, such as poverty, population growth and healthcare. What he found was that the majority of answers were so off the mark, even chimpanzees randomly selecting answers would get better results.

But in a contemporary world filled with readily available data, Rosling questioned, how can we explain this seemingly wilful ignorance? He found an answer through understanding how our brains work.

Factfulness is a composition of Rosling’s perennial understanding of misconceptions. The book is intended to help us change the way we think about our world, making us question the inhibiting instincts that control our brain. And whilst Rosling is talking about the more expansive issue of global development, these instincts can be directly applied to misconceptions surrounding the state of workplaces today. I’ve focused on four instincts that are the most relevant to workplace uncertainty.

The size instinct

When we are presented with a single figure and no supporting data to give us context, these individual figures can be easily manipulated to appear more significant than they are. This phenomenon is called the size instinct.

Think about the last time you read some damning piece about demanding millennials in relation to workplace experience. Statements such as “74% of millennials want to know that their work matters” are reflective of an emerging sentiment. But whilst statements like this have led us to believe it’s just millennials who are “needy” at work, we are not presented with a statistic for any other generation. And perhaps more pertinently, who doesn’t want to know that their work matters?

Younger generations are often said to be attracted to more social workplaces. According to our data, 46.5% of respondents under 25 say that “informal social interaction” is important. That, in isolation, could easily be turned into a headline; “nearly one in two young employees want to socialise at work.” But, when you hear that 44.0% of all other respondents also say that it’s important, the impactfulness of this headline is lost.

A current stereotype often portrays millennials as being more demanding in the workplace when compared to their older generational counterparts. However, our data unequivocally shows that far from being demanding, the youngest age group requires the least and generally has a better workplace experience than older age groups. From our respondents under the age of 25, the average Leesman Lmi score of workplace experience (69.4) was significantly higher than the average Lmi of the 45-54 bracket (61.3). Next time you read about demanding millennials in relation to the workplace, be mindful of stand-alone figures.

The negativity instinct

The negativity instinct is rather more self-explanatory. It has become common knowledge that we are innately conditioned to notice the bad over the good. In a world where bad news sells, we are rarely exposed to notions of improvement. Unfortunately, good news is not news, and gradual improvement is also seldom news. In the world of workplace, we are likely to be presented with negative aspects of the employee workplace experience—reports on disengagement, stress and detriments to our productivity—rather than feel-good stories of success.

Negative news is not always indicative of a situation worsening. In fact, 41.0% of workplaces we have independently measured after a workplace change had taken place received a Lmi score of 70 or above (the global standard for workplace excellence). Whilst sensationalist news would have us believe otherwise, slowly but surely workplaces are improving.

The generalisation instinct

We are continually generalising and categorising items—doing so is vital for our brain’s developmental process. Without generalisation and categorisation, our brains would very quickly get overloaded. But unfortunately, the process of categorisation can make it hard to distinguish within our own internal categories, meaning our brains will often make assumptions despite little corroborative knowledge.

In relation to the workplace, there is no instinct more apparent than the instinct to generalise. We see it time and time again—namely the sensationalism of research pertaining to open-plan offices. Take for instance, a single case study of an open-plan office. The report, which may have concluded that the employees were dissatisfied with their workplace environment, will inevitably lead to sensationalist headlines. Despite this being an isolated case study, a dominant narrative of open-plan being synonymous with low levels of employee satisfaction has been created.

First of all, open-plan offices are not one homogenous category of offices that all look the same; they come in all different variations. And second, just because one doesn’t deliver great employee experience doesn’t mean that none do. The same generalisation is also threatening office concepts with flexible seating—they’re not all the same, and even though some of them fail, it doesn’t mean that all do. So, let’s see what the data says.

Since 2010, we’ve collected data from more than 346 new workplaces (workplaces with ≥50 respondents). If we look at the average Lmi score in these workplaces compared to the proportion of employees who work from a work setting that is not assigned to them (i.e. a flexible setting), we see that flexible solutions, just like solutions with designated work settings, can be outstanding or they can be downright bad (see opposite). Next time you read an article about poor employee experience in an office with flexible seating arrangements, consider a wide range of data before you instinctively start to make generalisations.

The fear instinct

Critical thinking can always be difficult, but, when confronted with fear and uncertainty gaining clarity becomes nearly impossible. According to Rosling, we are so finely tuned to our fear, we subconsciously seek it out in our daily lives. To an extent we are defined by our fear.

In relation to the workplace, the fear instinct can provide us with useful insight into why there will always be some employees resisting change. Consider a workplace alteration in the form of an office move. Though many will welcome this as an opportunity to progress, others will instinctively fear and question the change. These change-critical employees will worry about what the new workplace will be like, how it will impact them, whether they will have their own desk, etc. And as the fear has kicked in, they will subconsciously pay more attention to sensationalist news articles that tell stories about how employees in unassigned workplaces are forced to go to the office early in the morning, just to find somewhere to sit for the day. Their brains will naturally adhere to this narrative, as critical thinking has been clouded by fear and uncertainty. As a result, even when presented with facts that describe the benefits, they will struggle to see any positive opportunities in the change.

The power of data

When utilised appropriately, data can be imperative to navigating uncertainty. At Leesman, we’re committed to independently collecting data on employee workplace experience. Our independence means that we have no hidden interests in what the data says. We have no vested interest in presenting data that shows that any particular solution is better than another, because we don’t sell any solutions. What gets us out of bed each morning is arming people around us with data that shows how things really are, and we hope this data helps us all get a more fact-based view of the workplace world.

In our newest research publication, The Workplace Experience Revolution – Part 2, we state that not all new workplaces achieve outstanding results. But we also report that some do. The world of workplace is not as bad as inflammatory headlines would have us believe. Things are improving.

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