Why Working Fewer Days/Hours is Better for Everyone

Happy businessman at the beach

A lot has happened since John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that a century later, we would be working only 15 hours a week. He may have made this calculation on expected output in relation to increasing productivity, but he must have left out the variable of the profit motive in a context of corporate greed. He didn’t get to see the competitive world of unimaginable globalization and interconnectedness that we can see today, and he didn’t realize to what extent organizations would demand their employees work such long hours. However, working long hours does not mean increased performance or profits. In fact, it may be the opposite.

[spoiler effect=”blind” show=”Post explanation”]So funny story… I spent all day writing a well-researched article and I finished and tried to publish it, but for whatever reason, since WordPress hates me, it decided neither to publish nor to save anything I wrote. Therefore, in the interest of retaining my sanity, I am not going to spend several more hours writing the same article. Rather, I am going to take snippets from some of my sources and just let them do most of the talking. I can’t stand when my work is rendered completely meaningless, which is probably as stressful as some of the people who have to work long hours in jobs they hate. (Did you like that segue? I hope you appreciated the effort, because that’s all I can muster…)[/spoiler]

From Business Insider:

In July, the president of the U.K.’s leading public health industry group declared that the five-day workweek is causing people too much stress and that Britain should instead switch to a four-day workweek.

Our work, depending on the nature of the job and our feelings towards it, can give us a sense of who we are, but it can be detrimental to our health and happiness if we work too much. Ontop of the obvious health benefits that my come with things like being able to sleep more, having less stress, and not exerting ourselves as much, a decreased workweek could also allow us to feel that we are more in control of our lives.

Organizations like 37signals (a software company) have a four-day (32-hour) workweek from May to October. Treehouse (an online education company) does the same thing, but for the whole year. The New Yorker reports on both a more extreme proposal, as well as some interesting research.

In 2010, Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics, made a recommendation even more extreme than [Mexican telecom mogul, Carlos] Slim’s [three-day workweek proposal]: a twenty-one-hour work week. According to Coote, a twenty-one-hour week would help to address “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” We may be reluctant to believe these claims—isn’t long, hard work necessary for success? But here’s the thing: when workers feel that they are being cheated or slighted by their employers, their productivity falls and their propensity to cut corners increases.

In a study of non-union employees in the United States, the organizational psychologist Daniel Skarlicki found that workers’ perception that they are being treated unfairly not only causes negative emotions but also breeds a desire for retribution. If employees feel that they aren’t paid enough, they may feel entitled, for instance, to mistreat office property or to waste office materials. If they feel that they are being asked to work longer hours than they’d been led to believe they would have to, they may decide to spend more time in the office on Facebook, take longer lunch breaks, work more slowly, or call in sick. A common gripe is, “I don’t get paid enough to work as hard as I do.”

New research from the University of Melbourne gives some support for the reduced workweek. They found that for people over 40, productivity drops after more than 25 hours per week. WeForum reports:

For up to 25 hours a week, cognitive function was improved by working more. However, after that increasing working hours begins to have a negative impact on cognition.

“In the middle and older age, working part-time could be effective in maintaining cognitive ability,” conclude the authors. “Our study highlights that too much work can have adverse effects on cognitive functioning.”

[. . .] Geraint Johnes, professor of economics at Lancaster University is quoted by theBBC as saying: “The research looks only at over-40s, and so cannot make the claim that over-40s are different from any other workers.”

In fact, there is a lot to be said for productivity going up by reducing employees’ work hours, which is why statements like this, from Business Insider, bother me:

While Americans work fewer hours than people in East Asian economies like Singapore and Korea, the U.S. is still working much harder than most of Europe.

Work hours say nothing about the quality – only the quantity – of work; and depending on your definition (effort?) I would argue that you cannot even measure how hard someone works by their hours. From personal experience of working 13-, 14-, and 15-hour days in the Japanese labour market, I can attest to the fact that productivity drops after a certain point. That is to say, just because you’re working long doesn’t mean you’re working hard. In fact, I would argue there’s a limit to how hard you work when you are too exhausted.

While it may be true that having someone work a 16-hour shift may be necessary in “peak season,” etc., there is absolutely no way that working 16-hour shifts all week, all month, will yield increased results. Think of my analogy of two students learning guitar. Who do you think would play guitar better after a month: Student A, who learns guitar in one 30-hour sitting; or Student B, who learns it for one hour every day? Of course you know the answer, but based on the fact that organizations are paying people more money to work in unproductive hours, they don’t seem to get it.

In other words: in the short-term, long hours may make sense… but after a while, the exhaustion catches up to the worker, to the point that one hour of their tired work is actually not worth one hour of their work at optimal performance (i.e. well-rested, motivated).

The fashion company Link Theory Japan kicks out their staff everyday at 6:00 PM – an incredibly forward-thinking policy in a country that is notorious for having (often arbitrarily) long hours for employees. In fact, I know many people for whom a 6-hour work day (yes, it does exist in Japan!) is the norm, and they speak about it as if they could never go back to an 8-hour day. For others, working 12 hours is normal, and depending on their perceptions of fair compensation, it may not have so many negative consequences for them.

Therefore, the consequences of overwork may depend not just on work hours, but employee perceptions of the job, as someone who works only a few hours in a job they hate may take a greater psychological toll than someone who works longer hours in a job they love.

This brings me to new research on school children. A recent study found that when an elementary school switched from the five-day week to the four-day week, math scores increased (though reading scores did not). The authors even say that they were expecting to find negative effects of a shortened week, but were as surprised as you may have been to hear about these results.

And then there’s the case of Sweden, as reported by the New York Times:

Sweden has long been a laboratory for initiatives to strike a better work-life balance, part of a collective ideal that treating workers well is good for the bottom line. Many Swedish offices use a system of flexible work hours and parental leave and child-care policies are among the world’s most generous.

The experiment at Svartedalens goes further by mandating a 30-hour week. An audit published in mid-April concluded that the program in its first year had sharply reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity and worker health.

“We’ve had 40 years of a 40-hour workweek, and now we’re looking at a society with higher sick leaves and early retirement,” said Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party on Gothenburg’s City Council, which is running the trial and hopes to make it the standard. “We want a new discussion in Sweden about how work life should be to maintain a good welfare state for the next 40 years.”

This brings us to an excellent question that Big Think tackled – what would we do with our free time, if we can reduce our work hours/days?

According to Dan Ariely, lots of things – some directly work-related, some not, but all likely to improve the quality of our working lives. Humans are not, Ariely notes, motivated only by money on the one hand and the desire to sunbathe while sipping martinis on the other. Ironically, a shorter “official” work week would likely weaken the defensive barriers many employees erect between work and play, freeing their minds to reach “a-ha” solutions to work-related problems even while sunbathing, and to use their time at the office more efficiently and effectively.

I want to leave you with this quote from University of Leeds Professor David Spencer (bolds are mine):

For us to reach – and enjoy – a three or ideally a four-day weekend, we need to reimagine society in ways that subvert the prevailing work ethic. We need to embrace the idea of working less as a means to a life well lived.

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Are You a National or a Global Citizen?

Global Village

A recent poll looked at the opinions of 20,000 people in 18 countries around the world regarding self-perceptions of citizenship. It showed that a significant amount of people – more than half – agreed that they consider themselves as “global citizens” more than a citizen of their own nationality.

As the World Economic Forum mentions, “The big increase of this sentiment is being driven largely by emerging economies, such as Nigeria (73% feel they are global citizens), China (71%), Peru (70%), and India (67%).” The poll also shows that ever since 2009, following the global economic crisis, industrialized nations are less likely to agree.

The results of the poll are here:

Global Citizen Poll

Global Citizen Poll

I rarely speak personally on this blog, but this poll was personally very meaningful to me, and I wanted to share my thoughts here.

About a week or so before having seen this poll, I began having intense feelings that I have largely lost my sense of national identity. I certainly do not think this is a bad thing; I just find it interesting. I have lived in three different continents over the past decade, and I have become a citizen of a hybrid culture, despite a specific passport.

Three years ago, I wrote about Third Culture Kids (TCK) and hybrid cultures; and over time, I have come to see that these are the kinds of people I identify well with. These are people who spend a lot of time with foreigners, move a lot, leave home and go abroad, or gradually lose a sense of where “home” even is. I consider myself to be in the latter category. I have a family that I know I can count on, but I am scarcely able to visit, so it hasn’t felt like “home” for many years. Once again, I don’t consider this a bad thing. I just think of it objectively, in that it is interesting that I have lost my sense of “home.”

Perhaps the reason I don’t feel that this is a negative thing is because I am incredibly hopeful and optimistic for the future. I have a strong desire to travel and explore the world, and I believe that one day I will find a place that I consider to be “my home.” There are a few places I have visited which I could imagine making my home, but there are still so many places I have never been to. Especially within the last year or so, I have fantasized about traveling the world and stumbling onto some place that I feel at home in.

The only reason I do not feel 100% as a “global citizen” is because when it comes to finding a job in a foreign country, visa issues make things very difficult. I have been reminded many times that I cannot simply walk over to another part of this “global village” and just set up shop. The European Union is the only supranational association I know of where this kind of thing is possible, but that doesn’t help me. Regardless of this reminder, I do still feel more strongly that I am a global citizen, and I look forward to experiencing other cultures around the world.

One of the other reasons I feel strongly about being a global citizen is because, through this blog – and other mediums, of course – I have gained a greater awareness about the world. I have come to watch news stories about people in places I have never had any affiliation with, and I often feel myself in their places. I have a sense that we are just a genetically diverse family, in a common world with various languages but cultures that are far more alike than they are different.

I believe that the sentiment of feeling that one is a “global citizen” rather than a national is a good thing. We are born into countries – we did not make that choice. But we do have a say in where we go, and if we make enough effort, we can probably make it there. I believe that I can go wherever I want, and so can you.

I want to end this post with a few quotes that convey my thoughts on this subject:

And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. and that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing “unity.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

 

After so many years, I feel more American than anything else, but I’m also Romanian and whatever other oddities of temperament I picked up elsewhere, in Transylvania or France, for instance. These days, everybody is both an exile and a resident – they don’t call it the global village for nothing.
― Andrei Codrescu

 

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

 

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.
― Anita Desai

 

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It’s Harder for Religious People to Tell Fact from Fiction

Jesus-Krishna

When I wrote the article “Should Parents Tell Their Kids ‘The Truth’ About Santa?” three and a half years ago, I argued that most children whose parents allow them to believe are giving them a potentially important opportunity to learn. That is, to understand the process of believing something they inevitably stop believing in (or should I say, most people stop believing in). However, I stumbled upon some research that both reminded me of this story and made me wonder about it.

Research from the University of Boston wanted to know if people could distinguish fact and fiction regardless of religiosity. They told them three types of stories to 66 kindergarteners (aged 5 & 6) – realistic, religious, and fantastical (i.e. impossible) stories. The researchers asked the children if they thought the story’s main character was real or fictional.

Almost all of the kids could tell that the characters were real when the stories were realistic. However, when it came to religious or fantastical stories, kids from secular households were able to tell that the protagonist was fake, while those from religious households thought the protagonist was real. In short, the researchers note:

The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.

The scope of this research was not to investigate what effects this has on people over their lifetimes, but this is why many have argued against imposing religious beliefs on their own children. In fact, prominent evolutionary biologist and famed militant atheist Richard Dawkins – among others – argues that doing so is a form of child abuse, as it disadvantages children. Of course, contrary to what many would expect, he does not argue for the banishing of religious teachings – rather, he believes religious schools should teach about all religions, not just their own.

When it comes to religiosity over the lifespan, one recent story that provides some insight caught my attention. As described by Polygon (with my brackets):

An elderly woman in China knelt before a statue of a League of Legends [a popular online computer game] character and prayed, touching off a viral reaction of equal parts amusement and sympathy.

Someone inside an internet café snapped a picture of the woman kneeling and burning incense before a larger-than-life statue of Garen, a character who has been in League of Legends for about six years. The statue appears to be some kind of promotional piece for the café, where League of Legends is commonly played.

Garen is pictured below, as he appears both in the computer game and in 3D (sculpture) form:

Garen_Splash_01

lol statue praying woman

Here is the aforementioned shot of the woman who took the time to kneel before the mighty Garen of League of Legends.

LoL praying woman

Of course, we do not know if she was religiously motivated to kneel and/or pray in front of the statue, and I was especially surprised to see this after learning earlier this year how little religion played a role in Chinese people’s lives. However, it does beg the question: Is this a snapshot of what those religiously-inclined children will look like in the future? It would be great if researchers could investigate how these beliefs may evolve over the time in a longitudinal way, to see if this question could be answered.

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Disruptive Technology and Corporate Karate

disruptive tech banner

“Disruptive technology” – a term I dislike, coined by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in 1995 – refers to an innovation that is generally meant to provide more financially accessible alternatives to well-established products, in order to gain market share. As Christensen and his colleagues explain, disruption “describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses.” This post will describe not only what kinds of effects disruptive technology can have on incumbents, but how corporations may be able to demonstrate a bit of self-defence when such innovations threaten them.

As scholar Erwin Danneels put it in a 2004 piece, disruptive technology changes the way performance is measured in the market. Many companies (i.e. “entrants”) use disruptive technology to enter markets, which can have major impact on “incumbents” – already well-established companies in the market.

Incumbents have developed and managed their resources and processes in a way to facilitate sustaining technology (i.e. incremental innovations). They have geared everything towards making such incremental innovations (because that has led them to their success), not the radical innovations that entrants sometimes make with disruptive technology. For example, Apple doesn’t come out with a breakthrough item every year – instead they have a new iPhone every nine weeks (at least, that’s how it feels sometimes).

Many academics have noted that incumbents are also vulnerable to disruptive technology if they focus too much attention on their current customers and do not put enough energy into appealing to potential future customers. Other facts include national contexts (e.g. incumbents losing dominance in the hard-disk drive industry in the US, but not Japan) as well as managers’ beliefs (e.g. middle managers at Kodak not accepting the importance of emerging digital products).

Therefore, what can an incumbent do when threatened by disruptive technology?

When an incumbent must respond, it is clear that experience – including learning from mistakes – can make a big difference. For example, the experience Charles Schwab had, disrupting the brokerage market Merrill Lynch was doing well in, helped them protect against E*TRADE, an entrant which tried to introduce disruptive technology  of their own.

Since incumbents do not always have necessary resources to respond to disruptive technology, joint ventures, alliances, acquisitions, and licensing may help increase their resources to adapt. It may also help for incumbents to create a separate organization (or sub-unit) to deal with the disruptive technology, so that there would be designated resources allocated to fighting back; especially if they can start developing new markets.

However, it should be noted that what is written about problems and solutions to disruptive technology for incumbents is actually not universally agreed upon. Danneels argues that the concept is not entirely clear, and Christensen’s theoretical framework’s predictive validity is questionable.

For example, Kodak laid off around 80% of its workforce since 1993 and a great deal of money and market share. This is despite creating a new organiz ational sub-unit to deal with the disruptive technology of digital cameras, which is what Christensen regarded as one of the major ways to deal with disruptive technology. Kodak’s sub-unit still had to fight for resources, and middle managers were not onboard, despite top management committing to digital technology.

There are many issues with the concept of disruptive technology, such as with its definition and its usefulness (e.g. digital cameras actually came out as more expensive than their analog counterparts, which is not what you would expect from what Christensen has written in the past). However, this concept will continue to evolve, as more and more disruptions occur in various industries.

Disruptive technologies are very hard to predict, but there are some lists which talk about trends that can allow us to make some informed predictions. If corporations want to defend themselves against disruptions, they should think about the ways in which their organizational structures are set up, and consider how their internal culture allows (or doesn’t allow) for flexible decision making to facilitate innovations. It also helps to know a thing or two (or even better, a lot more than two) about the very recent history of disruptive technology.

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Corporate Governance, and the Stakeholder vs. Shareholder Model

Corp Gov

Corporate governance is not a term that comes up in everyday conversation, but it is a very informative concept to know. Corporate governance refers to how a corporation is governed. This entails who owns and controls the company, and how it is managed. There are two main models of corporate governance, the shareholder model (which prioritizes the return on investment for a large number of investors) and the stakeholder model (where fewer people own, but more people have a stake in, the company; including customers, competitors, and the external community). These models of corporate governance define capital (finances), labour (employees), and management (employers) in very different ways. These relationships will be explained in the national contexts of the US and Germany below.

The Shareholder Model

The US certainly subscribes to the shareholder model, the major advantage of which is the liquidity of capital markets. Especially since the 2000’s in the US, with the increase of private equity firms, it is relatively easy to secure venture capital to finance one’s business. However, private equity firms limit their own risk by diversifying their portfolios (i.e. by not putting “all their eggs in one basket”), which makes them less concerned about the success of each individual investment. Under the shareholder model, companies also tend to weaken or privatize social protection, yet there are few constraints on CEO pay, which leads to the wage inequality for which the US is now notorious.

Indeed, directors and boards (and, needless to say, employees) have little oversight on management. Therefore, mergers and acquisitions are easy to do because management can act quickly. This means labour has only a weak voice in decisions, especially relative to top management. In fact, even management’s speculative behaviour can cause stock prices to rise or fall. 

Another characteristic of this model is its emphasis on a short-term return on investment to the shareholder. With such a prioritization of short-term gains, the long-term approach of developing human capital through specific skills training is discouraged, which explains why there is so much emphasis on higher education (and not apprenticeships) in the US. The shareholder model also adds pressure for labour market flexibility, and discourages employee protections. Therefore, many companies focus on profits for shareholders at the expense of employees.

Stakeholder Model

Germany subscribes to the stakeholder model, in which anyone who influences the company (from investors to customers) are considered stakeholders. In this model, ownership is more concentrated – usually owned by ‘insiders’ such as the state, families, other firms, and banks.

Banks are very important in this model because they have large equity stakes in the companies in which they invest. Therefore, banks play a central role in monitoring firms, even with representation on the board. In fact, in the German stakeholder system, there is codetermination with management, workers, and investors on the board. This kind of oversight explains why there is more egalitarian wage distribution (i.e. more wage equality), especially for middle-management.

The stakeholder model is associated with “patient” (i.e. long-term) capital. This long-term approach encourages management to develop training programmes for labour, contributes to employee retention, and incentivizes investors to protect against hostile takeovers. This kind of protection may help explain the relatively peaceful industrial relations environment in Germany. However, some scholars have criticized the stakeholder model for having too many stakeholders, which may mean that there are too many competing interests.

The Bottom Line

In the context of the different cultures and industrial landscapes of these countries, you can see how these corporate governance systems make sense. You can draw your own conclusions about what these systems say about these countries – and there has been plenty written on that topic. What I will say, however, is that despite the fact that there are pros and cons for each model of corporate governance, if you have a preference, you should take steps to work in an organization that espouses your preferred one.

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Understanding ‘Labour Market Flexibility’ Should Matter to You

You're fired, clean out your desk office worker

If you’re someone who wants to work to support yourself (i.e. basically everyone), then the labour market is important for you to understand. Just like the “supply and demand” of products in a market, the supply and demand of labour makes up what we call the “labour market.” An employee therefore represents a supply, to be “bought” (by an employer) and “sold” (by an employee). Depending on several volatile factors, there may be more or less demand from employers, and the government may play a significant role in affecting this. However… which approach is the best for workers?

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX2EQM_6tL4]

Labour market flexibility has been defined as “the ability adapt and respond to change” (Rubery & Grimshaw, 2003). Noam Chomsky, in the short video embedded above, critically explains the ramifications of imposing flexibility on the labour market. He briefly mentions how flexibility is actually a euphamism for the creation of conditions under which an employee can lose his job, as well as the fact that flexibility has in fact been seen by many to have a positive effect on economic performance. Of course, in such a brief video it is impossible to lay out all of the intricacies of the debate, but that is what this article is all about.

Gauging Flexibility

On one side of the debate, you have those who say that regulating the labour market protects employees from mistreatment. On other hand, some say that without flexibility, companies will not be able to adapt. As you can imagine, the issue is not black and white – it is nuanced, with governments around the world differing in degree of flexibility. How, then, can we gauge flexibility? We can use five indicators to tell us how flexible a labour market may be. Each of them are meant to respond to a market pressure, but they are also associated with negative ramifications if not kept in check.

1. Freedom to hire/fire – By freely hiring/firing, companies can adapt to changes in technology, product markets, and corporate restructuring; but this encourages layoffs during periods of economic troubles as a short-term response, which leads to a loss of skills and employee morale (not to mention a negative reputation of the firm). As Chomsky mentioned, when people are uncertain whether or not they will have a job the very next day, workers become more productive. As you can imagine, this uncertainty takes a psychological toll on employees.

2. Freedom (or willingness) to alter (or accept) job offers and new job conditions – This is useful since employment circumstances change (e.g. why pay ten people when a machine can replace them?), which may increase unemployment or precarious work (i.e. a crappy job characterized by low pay and lack of job security). But this also refers to employees’ willingness to accept jobs when they are unemployed. For example, workers may feel pressure to take the first opportunity that they see, but it may be in a professional’s best interest to wait until a more appropriate job demanding the skills they possess appears.

3. Freedom to alter working time – This may include adapting work times to high product demand, but it also may encompass keeping part-time workers just under the threshold of hours for requiring certain benefits and premiums. Employees may want this because it may help deal with the changing distribution of household responsibilities. However, as you can probably imagine, this may lead to conflict between the employee and employer.

4. Freedom to determine the form of contracts – This usually happens where future product or labour demand trends are uncertain. It often entails hiring temporary workers, because permanent contracts are more risky for employers. For example, a firm may want to hire more staff for a new product launch, or a hotel chain may want more staff for a big event or in peak season, but only until the project/event/season is finished. However, this generally means the jobs are lower-skilled and the skill development is often lacking in such cases. The low job security in these cases is often met with low motivation and morale. In other words, the changes employers make to contracts are often done to cut costs, not to increase efficiency.

5. Freedom to set wages – One theory states that unemployment should be met with decreased wages, so that the unemployed can price themselves back into work. Modern economists largely call for flexibility to adapt wages to market requirements, though this may lead to wage inflation in sectors with a tight labour market (i.e. one with a shortage of job applicants). Freezing or cutting wages (inline with product markets) to respond to financial difficulties may also hurt firms who are trying to recruit or retain employees.

Flexibility and Deregulation

It is not simply the case that labour markets lie on a continuum between regulated and deregulated, or between flexible and rigid. It is more complex than that. In fact, deregulation may not produce increased flexibility at all.  For example, in the 1980s, new low-wage part-time jobs were available to unemployed people in the UK to bring people out of unemployment; but the majority of these jobs were taken by people already in full-time work, like married women and young people. The jobs simply did not pay enough for people to go from unemployment to work. Legislation has created incentives since 1997 to help remedy the situation, but this case serves to demonstrate that state intervention had to solve the problem caused by leaving wages up to market forces.

The de/regulation debate kicked off in the 1980s and early 90s, when a clear difference became visible in the labour markets of America and Europe. The US created around 34 million jobs between 1980 and 1999, but there were only around 20 million jobs created in the entire European Union, despite the much larger working-age population within the EU. Around 3/4 of the American work-age population was employed by the turn of the century, but at the same time in the EU, employment returned to the same level as it was in 1980. However, recent reports show that America’s success in keeping unemployment low has not been sustainable.

US & EU unemployment in the 1990s & 2000s

Unemployment rates of US & EU converging in 2009

As the graph above demonstrates, the unemployment rates in the US and the EU converged in 2009. The next graph corroborates this by by looking at employment (not unemployment) rates from the 1980s. Again, the rates are converging.

Employment Rate of the US & EU from the 1980s to the 2000s

Employment Rate of the US & EU from the 1980s to the 2000s

A third graph corroborates this trend further.

Employment Rates 15-64y, from 1992 to 2010

Employment rates from 1992 to 2010, comparing several European countries individually with the EU and the US

In the mid 1990s, the OECD pressured European governments to deregulate their labour markets, arguing that flexibility would allow economies to adapt to change. However, two important things were largely overlooked at that time. First, some EU countries (like Denmark) had the same or better working-age employment rates than the US throughout the 1990s, and the unemployment gap was gone by the end of the decade. The growth in employment in the Netherlands was also much higher than that in the US, with unemployment that dropped under the US by 1999.

Second, labour market performance should not only be measured my (un)employment. During the late 1980s and 1990s in the US, there were several major concerns in the labour market. These included wage inequality, real income (i.e. one’s income, after taking inflation into account – which means the money isn’t worth as much if inflation increases faster than one’s salary rises), widening employment prospects between highly educated/skilled and uneducated/unskilled, poor career development prospects and low pay.

Much of this article has emphasized how flexibility is good for an employer, but keep in mind that employees are increasingly desiring flexibility in their jobs. In 2013, Clare Kelliher distinguished between flexibility ‘of employees’ (referring to organisations’ abilities to meet their needs by using labour in non-standard ways) and ‘for employees’ (which allows workers to choose how they work, and balance their work and non-work lives). She argued that employees increasingly want flexibility in how, where (i.e. from home vs. in the office), and when (i.e. flexible work hours) they work. Employers are especially aware of the demands of millennials (those born between 1980-2000), who highly value and desire work-life balance.

Comparing the US, Japan, and Germany

US: The US has no national-level employer association; and its trade unions are business unions that operate at the level of the company. Employers have much more power, as the bargaining power continues to decrease along with union membership and employee rights. The last of the industry-wide bargaining ended with the expiration of the steel agreement in 1986. Plant-level wage setting began to take place in the 1980s, with concession bargaining or “whipsawing” (i.e. a practice whereby companies make their plants exploitatively compete against one other, for example by having them lower their standards in order to get work). Also, the US is particularly flexible with regards to the absence of a requirement to justify or explain why an employee may be dismissed (AKA “at-will employment,” which also takes into account the fact that you can be fired without notice). Also, women working short hours is very uncommon in the US, unlike in the UK.

Japan: As in the US, unions in Japan are enterprise unions (company-level). However, whereas American employers want to have control over unions by decreasing their power, Japanese employers wanted to have control over unions by cooperating with them; so the relationship here is not so adversarial. In Japan, wage-setting is often done through informal coordination (e.g., major iron & steel companies making identical wage offers followed by other companies who do similar things in the Shunto) and then conglomerates of large firms (Zaibatsu groups) reinforce these wages across companies and sectors; and this process is akin to centralized systems of bargaining seen in countries like France, but it is informal, not legally regulated. Like the US, women working short hours is very uncommon in Japan, unlike the UK or the Netherlands.

Germany: Social partners (e.g. trade unions and employer associations) negotiate wages and working conditions without state intervention. However, the state mandates a high level of “juridification,” requiring, for example, that strikes and other industrial actions are only committed as a last resort. Works councils are also mandatory in Germany (and most, if not all, other European countries in the EU), and are distinct from unions; because they do not deal with wages, but with employment matters. Trade unions and works councils make up the ‘dual system’ of German industrial relations, and this helps ensure co-determination (i.e. employees as well as employers making business decisions).

Note that German works councils function at the company level, and trade unions generally function at the branch and industry levels. People who work a minimum number of hours (or earn a certain minimum income) are entitled to social protection like unemployment benefits. Therefore, part-timers generally don’t receive these benefits. Employment protection is quite deregulated in Germany, with increased easing of restrictions on fixed-term contracts in the 1980s. Bargaining is also becoming more decentralized, as company-level agreements raise markedly in the 1990s. According to Marchington and Wilkinson, in 2013 about three quarters of women and one quarter of men worked part time.

Wrapping it Up

Admittedly, this was not the most user-friendly introduction to the labour market; but it serves as an overall primer of many of the issues that countries around the world have to face. That is, do they give organizations the ability to act with flexibility (such as allowing them to fire people without warning) or regulate such practices? While it may seem to many people that flexibility may hurt employees, just keep in mind that certain success stories such as Silicon Valley represent the height of flexibility.

Perhaps this is an unfair characterization of flexibility, as the IT labour market is one in which job applicants have a great deal of power (because they are so highly in demand all around the world). However, the fact remains that this is just one example in which flexibility works well, because increased flexibility allows decisions, and therefore innovations, more able to be made. The flexibility and regulation debates will rage on as the businesses world evolves, changing national employment and legal systems with them.

In short, understanding the labour market will help you understand the risks and potential benefits regarding employment in certain sectors, industries, organizations, and countries. Considering how much time you spend at work, this should matter to you.

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The Evolution of Leadership

Businessman on summit

“So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,

And guided them with his skillful hands.”

–Psalm 78:72

Leaders have surfaced in stories and historical records since the invention of writing. No matter what period, mankind has had leaders, from the bible to the oval office, from Alexander the Great to Mahatma Gandhi. However, the way we have thought of leadership has greatly changed over the past century. In business and academia, it has been a subject of much theorization. and that is exactly what this article is all about. This article is not intended to be comprehensive, but accessible. It is therefore grossly oversimplified, which means it as a brief and useful primer to the research literature.

There has been a lot written on the difference between management and leadership, but I like to think of the distinction as management being the process of getting the most from limited resources to reach organizational goals, whereas leadership is about influencing people towards reaching organizational goals. Whetten and Cameron (2011) described managers those who “do things right” (i.e. perpetuate the status quo) whereas leaders “do the right things” (i.e. help the organization adapt).

There are many ways to divide theories of leadership. For example, we could say “best practices” (i.e. suggesting there’s one “best way” to lead) include theories on traits, leadership style, transformational leadership, etc. In contrast, other theories are “best fit,” which just means that it depends on the situation. However, in order to understand how leadership evolved over time, theories have been provided in a crude timeline. I have also identified the key theories and theorists by putting them in bold.

The “Trait” Era (mid-1800’s to 1940’s)

At this time, the population of the US was only around 17 million. Karl Marx was publishing seminal work in Britain, which had just beaten China in the Opium War. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) had created his “Great Man” Theory, asserting that leadership cannot be taught. Rather, there are born leaders (and therefore, born followers). As you can imagine, leaders were considered to be men, not women. Considering this was still a time of slavery, gender equality was not in most people’s minds. It is likely that this theory planted the seeds for the fascist ideas of people like Adolf Hitler, who wrote about “Ubermensch” (“supermen”) in his eugenic writings. Regardless, the Great Man Theory is not used at all today.

Then came the period of the Great Depression (1929-1939), during which the Nazi party in Germany rose to power. This led to the Trait Theory, which was very similar to the Great Man Theory, but with more emphasis on well-defined traits. Traits associated with leaders include motivation and ambition, self-confidence, integrity, energy, flexibility, intelligence, etc. One of the criticisms of this theory is that many people who possess such qualities aren’t actually leaders. The main problem, however, is again that leaders are thought only to be born and not made.

Behavioural Theories – The “Style” Era (1940’s – 1960’s)

This period started with World War II (1939-1945), and the subsequent creation of the United Nations. Behavioural theories of leadership came from this period, refuting the notion that leaders are born and not made. They suggest that leadership can in fact be learnt.

In the 1950’s, University of Michigan researchers published research on interviews they conducted on particularly adept and inept workers, and found two trends in leaders’ behaviours. Leaders were either a) concerned with their subordinates’ well-being, or b) concerned more with getting the work done. The former leaders had more productive workers than the latter. Meanwhile, the Ohio State University surveyed military and industrial personnel to see what subordinates thought of their superiors, yielding similar results. “Considerate” leaders were obviously more concerned with their subordinates’ well-being, while leaders who were more concerned with “initiating structure” emphasized getting the work done. However, it is not clear from the Ohio State research that the former were any more productive than the latter.

Management:Leadership GridThis led to the development of Blake & Mouton’s Managerial Grid (1964), which can be used to plot these leadership types. They use the scales of concern for people vs. concern for production. Keep in mind that consideration may vary based on culture. In the UK, leaders may be thought of as considerate if they help their subordinates with some tools, as opposed to the Japanese leader who may help their subordinates with personal problems. Therefore, the concept works across cultures, but the specific behaviours may vary greatly.

Around the same time as the behavioural theories began to take off, Kurt Levin and Rensis Likert had been writing about participative leadership. This entailed the involvement of workers in the decision-making process. Essentially, the researchers said there is a spectrum between autocratic decision-making and total delegation to subordinates. The argument was that people will be more collaborative and committed when they are involved in the decision-making process, and better decisions can be made when you put more heads together.

The “Contingency” Era (1960’s – 1980’s)

Some sources like to distinguish situational theories and contingency theories, but I have not yet seen a convincing or coherent enough explanation of how they differ. Furthermore, many sources use these terms interchangeably or put them together, for example, saying “situational contingency leadership.” Don’t get caught up on the titles.

Hersey & Blanchard model of situational leadership

Paul Hersey & Kenneth Blanchard developed a model of situational leadership, which is quite clear when you look at the corresponding diagram. Employee “readiness” (i.e. willingness + ability) determined which style of leadership to take, among directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating (other sources use different words for these). For example, if workers are willing but unable to perform, a leader may need to coach them; but if they are able but unwilling, a leader may need to support them instead.

Another popular model is Robert House’s “Path-Goal” Theory (1971) of leadership. He argued that leaders direct followers so they know where to go, eliminate obstacles (as the leader sees fit, depending on the situation), and reward the followers for their performance. What determines the leader’s effectiveness in this model is their leadership style, and the characters of the situation and the followers.House's Path-Goal Theory

Fred Fiedler’s Leadership Contingency Model (1967) looks confusing at first, but a lot of it is just fancy terminology for otherwise simple concepts. Fiedler used the term “least-preferred co-worker” (LPC) to determine if leaders are more concerned with people or tasks. LPC is basically derived from ratings of how much of a pain in the ass someone is to work with. The best approach depends on a combination of good leader-member relations, task structure (i.e. standardization of tasks), and position power (i.e. the leader’s authority to appraise and reward performance).

Fiedler's Leadership Contingency Model

Critiques found various pros and cons with this theory (e.g. questionable validity of LPC), but Fiedler went on to develop his theories. He created the Cognitive Resource Perspective (CRP), which stated that there are four factors that should influence how a leader leads his followers: 1) the group members’ competency, 2) stress, 3) experience, and 4) group support of the leader. In addition, with other researchers, he developed “leader-situation matching” training to help leaders match their LPC score with the situation. Although this theory is convoluted and somewhat questionable, there are over a dozen studies that provide evidence for increased group effectiveness following such training.

Transactional & Transformational Theories – The “New Leadership” Era (1980’s – 1990’s and beyond)

Tightening market conditions in the late 1970’s led to big changes in structures and markets, and the Cold War was seeing its end in 1991. Around this time, George Graen helped the development and popularization of the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory, which emphasizes the sense of mutual trust, respect, and commitment leaders have with their followers. By using these factors to assess the relationship, followers tend to be categorized as part of the leader’s “in-group” or “out-group,” which may have negative effects for those in the out-group; but that’s office politice. Regardless, research has supported this theory by demonstrating that high-quality LMX yields higher job satisfaction, productivity, retention, rates of promotion, and even salaries. This type of leadership uses contingent rewards (i.e. performance-based pay) and leaders influence followers by appealing to their extrinsic motivations, hence why this is called transactional leadership (the relationship is like a transaction – you work, and I’ll pay you for it).

Transformational Leadership wheel

Transformational leadership greatly contrasts, because such leaders try to influence followers by appealing more to intrinsic motivations (e.g., with intellectually stimulating or enjoyable work). For example, they try to inspire their workers and be considerate to them. It sounds so simple, but it was only in 1978 that James Burns introduced the concept. He said that transformational leadership is an ongoing process in which leaders and followers mutually improve one another. Leaders, therefore, influence with the use of their charisma. In 1985, Bernard Bass argued that leaders transform followers by appealing to their higher-order needs, increasing followers’ sense of task performance, and emphasizing team/organizational goals over personal ones.

In this era the concept of charisma (a term which came around a century ago from German sociologist Max Weber) gained popularity and importance. House (the path-goal theorist mentioned above) has done extensive research with his associates on charismatic leadership. Such leaders can profoundly influence their followers, as evidenced by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, as well as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Many researchers (including Bass, from the previous paragraph) have found that charismatic/transformational leadership can be trained. Though the term “charisma” has been defined in various ways (often to the dissatisfaction of critical academics), the leadership seen in this era certainly persist to this day.

The “Post-transformational” Era (2000’s and beyond)

I hesitate to call this the “post-transformational” or “post-charismatic” era, but this is the term many scholars use for the modern era in the leadership literature. Many say that this is a time of authenticity, where leaders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (both considered charismatic in their own ways) are refreshing contrasts to their contemporaries in the same political context. Daniel Goleman (1998) argues for the acceptance and significance of emotional intelligence, while others have tried to use personality psychology to find links to leadership (e.g., the famous “Big Five” typology has been studied and it appears that only extroversion predicts leadership). Researchers are also emphasizing organizational structure in leadership, such as by moving from bureaucracies to more team-based structures, though this is much easier said than done.

Dunphy & Stace 1993

Another important facet of leadership is how it relates to change (such as the structural change just mentioned). Many theorists (such as Dunphy and Stace in 1993) have devised models of change management, but when it comes to changing well-established routines and conventions, even the most charismatic leaders can have a great deal of difficulty. The Dunphy and Stace model, for example, assumes that there are a varieties of change strategies to choose from, but this says nothing about workers’ apprehensions or resistance to such change, which makes the model too optimistically simplistic.

Barbara Kellerman argued in 2012 that followers are actually more important than they have ever been before, and the importance of leaders has never been as low as it is now. Whether you agree with her or not, we know that workers’ reactions are the biggest factors in the success of a change initiative. In fact, there is now more than ever an emphasis on the relationships within the organization when it comes to leadership, which is probably a good thing for today’s employees.

The Bottom Line

It would take a lot more than a simple article to investigate every theory of leadership there is available today, but leadership has evolved from a primitive view of being a “born leader” to one that encapsulates the relationship with the follower. The question is no longer “can leadership be made?” but “how can leadership be made?” Naturally, the answer depends on who you ask.

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The Easiest and Hardest Languages to Learn

Crazy long name of lake on sign

Some languages you can get the hang of, some languages are pretty tough, and some languages are downright difficult. …And then there are those special few, those ridiculously complex ones, that take so long to master, that you’re pretty much hopeless to master it unless you started at a very early age, or moved to the place in which that language was spoken. Let’s look at the hardest languages to learn.

Keep in mind this is referring to difficult languages to learn from an English perspective. The fact of the matter is that if a French person and a Chinese person spend the same amount of hours learning Japanese for 4 years straight, the Chinese person will pick it up much better than the French person. But if the same people learn Italian, the French person will pick it up much quicker. The point is that language difficulty depends on the base language (i.e., the one(s) you already know).

The infographic below is a great resource to explain the extent to which some languages are simply more difficult than others to learn. I am actually not sure I agree with the difficulty of Korea (I have heard that the writing style is actually very easy to pick up from several independent sources), but I can hardly comment because I don’t speak Korean. Do you have personal experience with these? Do you agree/disagree?

Language Learning Difficulties

What I can say for Chinese and Japanese is that even if you speak it, the reading/writing system is so gigantic, that if you don’t use it, you really do lose it, in the sense of the ability to write these Chinese characters (I say Chinese because Japanese scripts were derived from Chinese characters). For many years, this has even been a problem with native speakers – with cellphones writing complex characters for us, we don’t use the mental faculties that reinforce writing ability.

Difficulty of languages, however, should not deter us from attempting to learn them. By bridging the linguistic gap between two cultures, we can make the world more connected. It’s the age of globalization, and there’s no better time to learn a new language. Take your pick.

Posted in Aggregators/lists/rankings, Japan | 2 Comments

Best Business Schools Everywhere in the World (2015-2016)

Graduates in Cap and Gown --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

There are lots of sites that have this information, but they require that you click through 25 times to get the information you want. I solved that problem. This article is not about a ranking. It is a list of schools that should be on your radar if you are looking at business schools anywhere in the world.

It shows the best business schools in the world – not the best overall universities. Of course, there is some overlap; but keep in mind that many of these business schools are not even part of a university.

The information below comes from Eduniversal‘s business school rankings. Technically, the lists below are ranked (by the Dean’s Vote), but this is really more like an amalgamation of preferences of individuals, not some rigorous measurement. As far as I am concerned, you should not think of these schools in terms of how they rank among one another – they are all elite business schools.

In other words, I extracted these schools from much larger lists of top schools, which did in fact rank them in terms of how many “Palmes of Excellence” they had. It was categories from 1 Palme to 5, and this list only contains the schools with 5. So if you see it at the bottom of a list below, it is still better than almost every school in its country; and one of the best in the world.

If an institution that you know is excellent is not listed here, it is probably on the list of “4 Palmes of Excellence” which is also excellent. Think of this as if it were a restaurant’s Michelin Stars, but for education. This means that you could still get a good education from a school with no Palmes (or a good meal from a restaurant with no stars), but these schools are recognized with this top distinction.

Countries with more than 2 schools with the distinction of 5 Palmes of Excellence were categorized on their own. Otherwise, they were put in their regional categories (e.g., “Scandinavia”).

 

North America

United States

  1. Harvard Business School
  2. Yale School of Management
  3. Stanford University – Graduate School of Business
  4. MIT – Sloan School of Management
  5. Duke University – Fuqua School of Business
  6. Columbia University – Columbia Business School
  7. University of California – Berkeley Haas School of Business
  8. Cornell University – Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management
  9. Northwestern University – Kellogg School of Management
  10. The University of Chicago – Booth School of Business
  11. University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School
  12. New York University – Leonard N. Stern School of Business
  13. UCLA – John E. Anderson School of Management
  14. Dartmouth College – Tuck Business School
  15. Carnegie Mellon University – Tepper School of Business.
  16. Purdue University – Krannert School of Management
  17. University of Virginia – Darden School of Business
  18. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Kenan Flagler Business School
  19. University of Texas at Austin – Mccombs School of Business
  20. University of Michigan – Stephen.M. Ross School of Business
  21. Indiana University – Bloomington Kelley School of Business
  22. Emory University – Goizueta Business School

Canada

  1. McGill University – Desautels Faculty of Management
  2. HEC Montreal
  3. University of Toronto – Joseph L. Rotman School of Management
  4. Queen’s University – Queen’s School of Business
  5. University of British Columbia – Sauder School of Business
  6. Western University – Richard Ivey School of Business
  7. York University – Schulich School of  Business

(Mexico is in the Latin America section below.)

 

Europe

United Kingdom

  1. London Business School
  2. LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science)
  3. University of Warwick – Warwick Business School
  4. University of Cambridge – Judge Business School
  5. University of Oxford – Said Business School
  6. University of Manchester – Alliance Manchester Business School
  7. Cranfield School of Management

France

  1. INSEAD Business School
  2. HEC Paris
  3. ESSEC Business School
  4. Emlyon Business School
  5. Université Paris Dauphine
  6. ESCP Europe Business School

Germany

  1. University of Mannheim – Mannheim Business School
  2. WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management
  3. EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht – EBS Business School

Spain

  1. ESADE Business School
  2. IE Business School
  3. IESE Business School

Switzerland

  1. IMD Business School
  2. Universitat St. Gallen – School of Management
  3. Université de Lausanne – HEC Lausanne

Scandinavia

  1. Copenhagen Business School (Denmark)
  2. Erasmus University – Rotterdam School of Management (The Netherlands)
  3. Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden)
  4. BI Norwegian Business School (Norway)
  5. Aalto University of Business (Finland)
  6. Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (The Netherlands)

Western Europe

  1. Wu Vienna University of Economics & Business (Austria)
  2. SDA Bocconi School of Management (Italy)
  3. Trinity College Dublin – Trinity School of Business (Ireland)
  4. Université Catholique de Louvain – UCL Louvain School of Management (Belgium)
  5. University College Dublin – UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business (Ireland)
  6. Universidade Nova de Lisboa – Nova School of Business and Economics (Portugal)

Eastern Europe & Russia

  1. The University of Economics Prague (VSE) (Czech-Republic)
  2. St. Petersburg University – Graduate School of Management (Russia)
  3. SGH – Warsaw School of Economics (Poland)
  4. Lomonosov Moscot State University Business School (Russia)

 

Asia

China

  1. Fudan University – School of Management
  2. Tsinghua University – School of Economics and Management
  3. CEIBS – China Europe International Business School
  4. Peking University – Guanghau School of Management
  5. Shanghai Jiao Tong University – Antai College of Economics & Management

Korea

  1. Seoul National University – SNU Business School
  2. Korea University Business School
  3. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology – Kaist Business School
  4. Yonsei University School of Business

South & East Asia, and the Middle East

  1. Indian Institute of Management Balgalore (IIM-B) (India)
  2. Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management – The Leon Racanati Graduate School of Business Administration (Israel)
  3. KOC University – Graduate School of Business (Turkey)
  4. Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A)
  5. Keio University Business School (Japan)
  6. National Taiwan Univeresity – College of Management (Taiwan)
  7. Waseda University Business School (Japan)

 

Southern Hemisphere

Latin America

  1. EGADE Business School – Tecnologico de Monterrey (Mexico)
  2. FGV – EAESP Sao Paula Business Administration School (Brazil)
  3. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile – Escuela de Administración (Chile)
  4. INCAE Business School (Costa-Rica)

Africa

  1. University of Cape Town – UCT Graduate School of Business (South Africa)
  2. University of Stellenbosch Business School (South Africa)

Oceania

  1. The University of Melbourne – Melbourne Business School (Australia)
  2. The University of Sydney Business School (Australia)
  3. Monash University – Monash Business School (Australia)
  4. University of New South Wales – Australia Business School (Australia)
  5. The University of Auckland Business School (New Zealand)

Observations

I feel inclined to defend Japan in saying that I’m shocked that more institutions weren’t mentioned for their excellent business programs. I’m actually surprised/disappointed/embarrassed that Japan – a culture of education, where almost everyone goes to university – didn’t have its own section. I suppose this must be how many nations and institutions not on the list must feel, so don’t worry. Just keep in mind that rankings all have their limitations.

In fact, As I mentioned before, you should always take these rankings and lists with a grain of salt. For example, Webometrics – a Spanish research company – ranked the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science South Africa’s top institution, but this only had 4 Palmes of Excellence according to Eduniversal.

Regardless, what we can say about these lists is that the Southern Hemisphere clearly has less elite business schools, but I’m sure there are some countries (in both hemispheres) that you didn’t know had such high-level institutions.

It’s a good time to learn. Why not go international?

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What Really Happened to Phineas Gage? – Psychology’s Most Famous Case Study

Phineas Gage close-up

If you have ever studied psychology, you probably know the name “Phineas Gage.” He was an American railway worker whose life changed dramatically on September 13, 1848. He was removing rocks so a railway to be laid, which sometimes requires drilling holes into the big boulders that can’t be pushed aside, and pushing in gun powder with an iron rod before exploding them from a safe distance. That day, however, he accidentally scraped the boulder which ignited the gun powder, projecting the rod into the air. It went straight through his head… but he lived. His legacy lives on as psychology’s most famous case study; but his legend is usually distorted in myth.

The meter-long (3cm in diameter) rod went straight up into his skull, from under his left eye, and it exited out the top of his head. He regained consciousness a few moments later, 30 meters from where the iron rod landed. There’s no telling how calmly he got up, but with what I am sure is a lot of blood gushing out of him, he began his oxcart ride back into town for some much-needed medical attention.

As the British Psychological Society (BPS) notes, this is where things become confused. Emeritus Professor Richard Griggs from the University of Florida analyzed the accounts of Gage within 23 textbooks used in universities, and he found that most of them are either misleading, inaccurate, or leave out important information.

For example, the general account of Gage is that he never worked again. Some sources claim that he became a vagrant, or a circus freak who grossed people out with the hole in his head. According to Griggs, the worst falsehood that he came across was that Gage survived for 20 years with the iron rod still stuck in his head.

So… what actually happened?

Phineas Gage with skull picture

Not what you had imagined, I suspect.

We know the answer because of the extensive historical analysis of primary sources by University of Melbourne Professor Malcolm Macmillan and his colleague Matthew Lena, in Boston. Also, the relatively recent discovery of actual photographic evidence helps paint that picture. The picture, that is, of a major recovery.

For someone who was impaled with a meter-long iron rod, Gage was pretty lucky. It seems that the rod only damaged the left side of his brain, and it created an opening to drain the infection; so he lived on. His was the first recorded case of a personality changing from brain damage, which is why it’s so famous. Gage’s personality went from a charming, pleasant, energetic man to a grossly profane jackass, totally uncharacteristic of his former self.

However, over time it seems that his life became more normalized, and he worked mostly by driving stagecoaches, always with his rod in hand (as it had become his inanimate companion). Sometime in the early 1850s, he decided to leave America with a colleague who set up routes for him to drive stagecoaches in Chile. He did that for several years before returning to his family in 1859, where he died in February the following year from epilepsy. He lived eleven and a half years after his accident.

Working in a foreign environment would have necessitated being polite, probably picking up some foreign words, and otherwise being a good worker for his customers. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that damaged brain areas can be retrained to compensate for deficiencies, this environment may have been very beneficial to him. While such neural healing doesn’t always work out well (e.g., phantom pain), I suspect that this helped Gage live quite a normal life. However, Griggs found that modern textbooks tend not to mention these facts. As the BPS reports:

[ . . . ] Fourteen of the books tell you about the first research that attempted to identify the extent of his brain injuries, but just four of the books give you the results from the most technically advanced effort, published in 2004, that first suggested his brain damage was limited to the left frontal lobe (watch video).”

[ . . . ] Only 9 of the books feature either of the two photos to have emerged of Gage in recent times.

[ . . . ] Only three detail his mental recovery.

[ . . . Only] 4 mention the years he worked in Chile.

Clearly, contemporary texts sometimes have intellectually lazy accounts of historically significant events and cases. As Griggs says, “It is important to the psychological teaching community to identify inaccuracies in our textbooks so that they can be corrected, and we as textbook authors and teachers do not continue to ‘give away’ false information about our discipline.”

The only way we keep psychology as a scientific study is by keeping it from being shrouded in myth, folklore, urban legend, and nonsense. After the accident, Phineas Gage lived on to lead a life that might not have been as “exciting” as many textbooks claim… but it’s the truth.

I think the fact that someone whose head was impaled with an iron rod lived a pretty normal life afterward is an interesting story all on its own.

Posted in Biographical, Neuroscience, Psychology, Science | Leave a comment