Cultivating moral jazz


practical-wisdomA couple of years ago I was a member of Creative Good’s UX Councils, and I had a chance to hear Barry Schwartz present a keynote based on the insights from his book Practical Wisdom. He is also the author of bestseller Paradox of Choice. That presentation continues to inform my thinking and the connections I’m making to other ideas, so I thought I would recap some of the most influential elements here.

When I heard him speak, Barry introduced his presentation by telling us that what prompted the book (co-authored with Ken Sharpe) was the sense that we had was that everything is at least a little bit broken. If we have children, we are dissatisfied with how they are being educated, and we think it’s because teachers don’t know and care about our kids enough. If we go to the doctor’s office, they meet with us for seven minutes with us and most of that time is spent looking at their laptop screens. But the reality is that the dis-satisfactions we feel as patients, parents, and clients are matched by the providers’ dissatisfaction. We think, for example, that lawyers care more about billable hours than making sure they are focused on the right services … but they have the highest suicide rate. So we really need to consider more holistically what is happening.

When we sense that something is not right, we have draw on two tools to fix it – rules or incentives. Following the financial crisis everyone asked: How do we regulate the bankers? Or how can we create smarter incentives (by ensuring that what’s good for bankers is good for everyone)? Those are the only weapons or tools we have – sticks and carrots. We can certainly use better rules and incentives, but those are ultimately not enough. What we need is something else that is not discussed, and that is that we need virtue, character. We need people who want to do that right thing, and that know what that is. Aristotle called it Practical Wisdom.

The goal of Barry’s talk was to:

  1. explain why we need virtue in general and practical wisdom in particular
  2. describe what practical wisdom is
  3. show that unwittingly we make things worse because we don’t cultivate wisdom
  4. encourage people to transform the institutions in which they work

It is not enough to treat other people the way you want to be treated, but that is not the question. The real question is how does that person want to be treated?

In Practice

Wisdom is understanding when and how to make exceptions to the rule. It’s also about when and how to improve – it’s “moral jazz”. It’s about the ability to choose among virtues when they conflict. Sometimes you can’t be both honest and kind. And it’s not a rare event, it happens all the time. There is a right answer in every situation, but taking the perspective of another person and empathizing with them is extremely complicated. It is not enough to treat other people the way you want to be treated, but that is not the question. The real question is how does that person want to be treated? If you can ask that question and get an intelligible answer, it required perception, sensitivity, and knowledge of the other person. If you can achieve that understanding, then a wise person uses these moral skills in pursuit of the right aims – to serve and not to manipulate.

In the book he talks about the War on Wisdom. He gave the example about Chicago teachers all following the same script about a book called The Bath for kindergartners. There was a 75 item script to read kids a 35 page picture book. The fear is if we let the teachers use their judgment, disastrous things will happen. So the goal of the script is to make the reading of this book judgment-proof for teachers – but in protecting from disaster it also constrains innovation. It deprives people the opportunity to learn from experience and truly consider what a child needs at a particular moment in the day.

Teachers are not interested in teaching kids if the goal is incentives. Teaching kids to do well on tests breaks any commitment to true learning. Teachers will eventually ignore the kids that will very well or very poorly, and focus on the kids on the bubble. This is not why teachers became teachers, but the incentives of No Child Left Behind motivate this kind of behavior. It de-moralizes professional activity and it demoralizes the teachers. More deeply, it also de-moralizes the practice itself – under these conditions, teaching no longer has moral significance and value. It becomes about salary and bonus, and it creates addiction around incentives. Withdrawal requires another dose. Getting teachers to do anything about anything will require another incentive.

Schwartz relayed details about a study of hospital custodians by someone at Yale. Custodians are at the bottom of the food chain, they are essentially invisible. They have a long list of official job duties and related duties. But the good ones know when do to what’s not written in the job description. In one case there were family members sleeping in a visitors lounge at the moment he was supposed to be cleaning, so he came back later. In another story, a custodian cleaned a patient’s room a second time (the father hadn’t seen the first cleaning) so the father could feel that his son in a coma was being cared for. Behavior like this makes patients and their families feel better, and it improves patient care. There is nothing in the official job description or list of work tasks that involves interaction or working with another human being in any way – they could be working in a mortuary! But through their work they were also providing treatment and easing concern for hospital patients and their families.

A custodian will tell you that they are trained in 20 minutes. But real care requires experience, training, and time. The kinds of interactions that are valued are care, kindness, empathy … but their job descriptions don’t cover that. They have the will to do right by other people, and they have the skill to determine what doing right requires. This is consistent with Aristotle. Will without skill is a loose cannon, and skill without will may use their skills to further their own self-interest. The wise person knows how to make the exception for every rule.

In another example, Schwartz described a situation where doctors had to figure out how to substantially reduce patient costs in a low-income patient group. This group of patients were costing several hundred thousand dollars a year, so the medical professionals looked for ways to reduce their use of medical services. The recommendations are obvious – the patients were overweight, smoking, eating fried chicken. But the doctors realized it wasn’t the lack of knowledge about making those changes. The critical thing is was to get patients to do things that serve their long term interests. They accomplished that goal by developing a relationship between caregivers and their patients. They focused on hiring employees that know how to talk to people, and then taught them what they needed to know to provide accurate recommendations for the patients. In this way the medical facility reduced patient services by 50% and made their patients healthier. In a society like ours we have solved acute disease. But we don’t know how to solve chronic disease, and it’s a growing concern. This is a unique problem for affluent society, and it requires being managed not cured by the patient. We need to treat patients as people in order to do that.

Schwartz also provided a really powerful example from an Israeli daycare center about how ‘smart’ incentives can backfire. Parents were coming later and later, so the Director was exasperated and started to fine them. Basically, it created a negative incentive on lateness. Unfortunately, the outcome was that lateness actually went up, because people felt it was worth it – the cost for those 15 minutes was worth it! The fine was simply the price for coming twenty minutes late. The Director was trying to say that the fine is not a price, but the only way to have it be effective would have been to make it a capital offense to come late. And then the Director gave up, and lateness went up even further – because it was an even better deal! In summary, prior to putting the fine in place, parents had an obligation to the daycare staff to follow the rules. Once the Director gave them a second rule, it undermined the first one, leaving nothing except a calculation of cost and benefits. There was no moral obligation. The lesson learned here is that financial incentives encourage people to calculate relative costs and benefits, and not think about what is right.

The reality is that if people have jobs in which the primary objective is to make money (investors, for example), it’s nearly impossible to focus on morality. They get out of bed and go to work every day to make money. It’s not about greed per se, it’s the goal of their job. Until the goal of that work changes, there is no incentive that’s going to result in a meaningful change in behavior.

Implications for Customer Experience

Schwartz then tied this back to his Creative Good UX Councils audience. He asked (rhetorically): is bad customer experience bad for business? Yes, but that’s not good enough. Is bad customer experience bad for customers? That’s better. You have to be interested in the welfare of the people you serve. Is it bad for the employees, too? That is why customer experience matters. Business, customers, as well as you and your colleagues suffer. It becomes something you tell your children avoid. Following scripts and chasing incentives is not how most people want to work.

What can we do?  Not more courses on ethics! They are a waste of breath and money and faculty and student time. When you ghetto-ize these issues into a course, you imply that no-one really cares. Ethics needs to be infused in the day to day practices of how people work. If attending physicians treat patients with disrespect, interns will learn the same. Provide the example! The truth of the matter is that we are all teachers of somebody, and we are teaching all the time; students learn more from teachers in between lessons. The kind of examples that we set is going to be the real ethics course.

There are some positive examples of reorienting training and education to nurture wisdom. Research has shown that medical students have maximum empathy for students on the first day of medical school, and it declines from there. Emotions don’t always cloud judgement. At Harvard Medical School students see someone over the course of the year. They get to know the person and their circumstances, the complications that make it impossible to find the straightforward answer. As a result, those physicians in training people stop treating diseases and start treating people. They learn by watching their mentors and their fellow students behave in the same way. in this way the culture of medical education and treatment has changed. Some might ask if we can afford it. But Schwartz asks … can we afford not to? The current approach to medical care is not affordable or sustainable, so something has to change.

The exercise of taking executive stakeholders out for fieldwork is a wonderful way to create shared understanding, build empathy, and make more people-centered decisions as a project team!

People who do the right thing cultivate both character and wisdom. Work is more satisfying and meaningful and relationships with other people will be more satisfying and meaningful. What makes people happy? What we now know with reasonable certainty is (1) meaningful engaged work and (2) close relationships with people. That means that if you can get organizations to change the mindset and cultivate wisdom, they will help business and customers … but they will also be happier. The reason for optimism is to imagine that it would be self-sustaining, and that all levels of the organization could operate with the same level of thoughtfulness and empathy as the wise janitor.

Learn More

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin P. Cartwright Profess of Social Theory at Swarthmore.  You can watch his videos on TED and the Gel conference websites.

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