People Are Happiest at Work When They’re Treated Just a Little Bit Like Toddlers

Rules are a funny thing to get a handle on in the workplace: Too many, and people will feel stymied by their lack of agency. (Broadly speaking, what people desire most from their jobs is a sense of autonomy.) Too few, and employers risk confusing and de-motivating their staffers, who will likely have a hard time knowing what it is, exactly, that they’re supposed to be doing.

And so it makes sense that in a recent New Yorker column, psychology writer Maria Konnikova writes that the workplaces with the highest-performing employees are the ones that strike a balance between these extremes; for a happy office, you should set guidelines, but give lots of wiggle room, too. One study she cites found empirical evidence for the above example: When workplace rules were either too fuzzy or too strict, they backfired, dampening employee enthusiasm. In contrast, that middle ground — clear expectations in terms of what should be accomplished, combined with freedom as to how it might actually get accomplished — led to more engaged employees (and happier customers, too).

Paraphrasing the Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey, Konnikova writes that “we are all still a bit like our two-year-old selves: tell a toddler exactly what to do and what not to do, and she balks. Let her figure it out within a certain framework, and she is happy.” No tantrums necessary.

Employees Are Happiest When They’re Treated Like Toddlers