Behavioral scientists do many studies, including controlled experiments, which entail massive advanced planning. But some of the most interesting studies happen when something strange or unplanned unfolds, and the researcher capitalizes on serendipity. Consider a little study done in the late 1970’s by industrial psychologist Frank J. Smith, who had collected employee attitude data from about 3000 employees at Sears’ headquarters in Chicago. Smith found that employee attitudes towards their jobs and their supervisors weren’t especially useful predictors of which employees were absent from work UNTIL the day a crippling snowstorm hit. Employees had a good excuse to stay home, so they had considerable discretion over whether to make the tough trip in or not. That day, employees who were more satisfied with their supervision and other parts of their jobs were far more likely to make the trip in than those who were dissatisfied. In particular, whether or not they were satisfied with their supervision was among the strongest predictors of attendance.
Since then, many other researchers have shown that when people feel mistreated and dissatisfied with their jobs, they are unwilling to expend “discretionary effort.” It makes sense to me. When I am stuck working for, or with, assholes, I don’t go out of my way to help. But when I admire my bosses and peers, I’ll go to extreme lengths to help –- and it is clear that most people feel and act the same way.
The citation is Smith, Frank J (1977) “Work attitudes as predictors of attendance on a specific day.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 62:16-19.
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