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Science Suggests You Should Reconsider This Common Advice

Advice such as "teamwork makes the dream work" promotes problematic norms.

Key points

  • Researchers have shown that sleep and relaxation are critical for creativity. People need to tend to their exhaustion when they're tired.
  • Saying the work one loves is the “right” work is problematic. Some have the privilege to seek jobs that go beyond basic needs; others do not.
  • Teamwork is highly valued in most companies. Yet, four out of five teams fall short of their goals.
Siora Photography/Unsplash
Source: Siora Photography/Unsplash

Sometimes bad advice is easy to spot. An American psychologist once suggested that hugging children was problematic for childrearing, proposing that parents should shake hands with kids instead. A magazine once advised male supervisors to hire “husky” women, because they were believed to be more efficient and less emotional than thin women. This advice, which was published nearly a century ago, is now completely debunked: Parents should be affectionate and hiring practices fair.

However, sometimes bad advice is harder to spot. Advice like “when the going gets tough, the tough get going" and “grin and bear it” may seem helpful on the surface; however, such less obviously egregious yet similarly inaccurate advice can also be insidious. This advice promotes problematic norms that are counter to scientific research.

Below I provide examples of three pieces of common advice that should be reconsidered.

Power through exhaustion

“Don’t stop when you’re tired; stop when you’re done.”

The idea of powering through exhaustion is often glorified and lauded as a sign of dedication. The 1987 movie Wall Street proclaimed “money never sleeps,” and more recently, Elon Musk mandated that all Twitter employees show their commitment by agreeing to 84-hour work weeks.

Yet, economists have found that this mindset can backfire. After employees work a few hours, each subsequent hour is likely to become less productive. One study found that, on average, working 70 hours produced about the same output as working about 55. As the researcher explained, those extra hours are wasted time. Beyond productivity, working long hours can have negative health implications, hurt relationships, and even hinder one’s sex life.

On the other hand, stopping for a break when you’re tired can have a big impact. The chemist who developed the Periodic Table of Elements reportedly tried to push through the development of the Table for three days, with no success. The solution only came to him after a good night’s sleep.

Researchers have since shown that sleep and relaxation are critical for creativity. With 72 percent of people reporting that some of their best ideas come in the shower, and even 10-minute breaks having a meaningful impact on productivity, it seems that we should all stop when we are tired to tend to our exhaustion rather than push through until we are done.

In other words, science suggests that the more accurate advice may be: “Take a break when you’re tired, it’ll help you get it done.”

Don't settle

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.”

Steve Jobs offered this advice during his commencement address at Stanford, encouraging graduates to not settle until they found their calling. The quest for meaningful work is understandable, as it can benefit both employees and employers.

Yet, saying that loved work is the “right” work has a major drawback. People have many needs that they need to fill—shelter, clothing, and food amongst the most basic—before being able to focus on self-fulfillment. While some people have the privilege of seeking jobs that go beyond these basic needs, others do not. This does not make their jobs less than. My team’s research concluded that we should treat any job that someone chooses in support of themselves or their family as having dignity.

The author and sociologist Erin Cech takes this suggestion a step further. She reports getting happiness and meaning from work has a serious drawback: We are put in a precarious position when we depend on a single institution for our identity. Rather, people can benefit from building their own “meaning-making portfolio” where work is just one area to find fulfillment—family, community, hobbies, and religion are potential others.

Taken together, science points to the more accurate advice: “Great work is work that meets your needs.”

Work as a team

Teamwork makes the dream work.”

Teamwork has become gospel in most companies, with many managers believing that two heads are better than one. Yet, the hard truth is that two heads often produce less than one.

One study showed that an astounding four out of five teams fall short of their goals. Teamwork breaks down when teams fail to attain alignment on their goals, are dominated by the loudest voice rather than the best ideas, or spend too much time on meaningless issues.

Consider the team that decided to let the space shuttle Challenger fly in 1986 despite evidence of a structural problem with the shuttle: After the shuttle tragically exploded with astronauts on board, a Presidential commission found that the team silenced naysayers and failed to consider important data. The team made a worse decision as a whole than the individuals would’ve made alone, making it a nightmare rather than a dream.

Thankfully, not all teams face such devastating consequences, but they nonetheless face similar issues in working together. As my research has shown, using teamwork as a panacea often overwhelms employees by forcing them to participate in too many ineffective teams.

Accordingly, more accurate advice might be: “Teamwork sometimes makes the dream work, but sometimes it’s a nightmare.”

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