The future of work: Is your manager orthopraxic or orthodox?

Work and Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxicy

For a while, I was thinking that the essence of “future of work” discussions was this whole maximizer vs. satisficer issue. That means you can either have a hard-driving, professionalism-demanding, results-oriented boss who wants perfection (a maximizer) or someone who is eventually content to let good enough get out into the world (a satisficer). Maximizers probably get promoted more and drive a little more revenue, but they also burn out their employees in a ridic way, so companies with a lot of maximizer managers are also probably somewhat in the weeds on filling and training new employees; that’s kind of like repeatedly pushing boulders up hills. Satisficers maybe take a few more hits when a product isn’t great out in the world initially, but hell, that’s the point of listening to your customers anyway, right?

Maximizer vs. satisficer is interesting, but here’s another way you can look at work: how your manager thinks about rewards and punishments. After all, all work really is (ultimately) is a series of rewards (praised on e-mail, promoted, nice trip) and punishments (dressed down, demoted, fired, yelled at, whatever). That probably sounded melodramatic, but really, work is mostly about reward and punishment — and then managing the in-between periods (with neither) to find some type of purpose.

There’s some new research from Kristin Laurin at Stanford University about all this, and while it has some religious undertones (which can’t always relate directly to a workplace), it’s pretty interesting.

Here’s the article, and here’s where you need to start:

  • An orthodox religion focuses on the correctness of beliefs.
  • An orthopraxic religion focuses on the correctness of behavior.

That’s all from root words and the like.

What you prioritize — the belief or the behavior — has important implications for how you look at reward and punishment. Someone that focuses on the belief might not punish someone harshly if they did something bad by accident; but if you focus on the behavior, i.e. the actual thing that happened, you might want to throw the book at them.

You can already probably see where this is headed in terms of work: you’ve probably had managers that focus primarily on your behavior (i.e. what you do), and totally remove from the context of the belief. (Thus they give you no chance to explain your behavior in terms of a strategic idea.) You’ve probably also had managers that focus too much on belief and culture, but ignore actual behavior. (That can create a culture where nothing gets done.)

Before we get more into the work side of this, here’s a little bit about how the research played out and the differences between orthodox and orthopraxic:

Sure enough, across three studies, this is what we found. In one study, we recruited Protestants from the United States and Hindus from India. We told all participants a rather shocking story about a young man, J.G., who killed his uncle. We went on to tell some participants that J.G. acted fully intentionally: He wanted his uncle dead so that he could receive an inheritance, and he ran his uncle down with his car. To other participants, we gave a different version of the story, in which J.G. also wanted his uncle dead, and also hit and killed him with his car, but he did so unintentionally: He meant to hit the brakes, but in his panic he stepped on the gas. Then we asked participants how much they thought J.G. should be blamed and punished.

Not surprisingly, everyone judged the intentional J.G. harshly. Most people would agree that someone who murders a relative in cold blood for financial gain deserves a severe punishment. When it came to the less intentional J.G., though, Protestants were far more lenient than Hindus. Both groups of participants were still somewhat harsh — after all, even the less intentional J.G. wanted his uncle dead — but Protestants gave him a considerable break for having acted unintentionally. Hindus gave him a tiny break for having acted unintentionally, but appeared to feel that the more important factor was the tangible outcome of his behavior. Moreover, we found that the difference between the two religious groups was fully explained by their difference in orthopraxy.

So here’s how you transition this to work. Obviously if you work for 30 years, you’re going to (probably) have a bunch of bosses and a wide variety of styles. You need to adapt to how they work and what they want, because hierarchy might shift in what it looks like but it probably won’t go away. You need to please your boss if you have a standard job. That’s how it works. That’s how the whole system works.

Laurin and her research crew hasn’t done a ton of research on American workplaces, but here’s what they’re finding so far:

We are finding that orthopraxic managers tend to prefer reward systems based on cold, hard results: how much sales revenue an employee has generated, or how many reports she has filed. By contrast, orthodox managers tend to be more interested in reward systems based on less tangible features, like how hard an employee works or how much she cares.

Orthodox managers might be better for how we currently think about millennial workers, but old-school guys and ladies would hate them. “How hard you work” and “how much you care” are fluffy skills. Those things don’t tie to revenue. Sales revenue and report filing are hard, trackable things. Business leaders tend to love that.

Kinda interesting to think about, then: whether your manager values behavior or belief can really make a huge difference in your day-to-day life.

Ted Bauer

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