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We Tend NOT to See Curves - Especially leadership curveballs

An odd piece of advice that was given to me by a decorator was: When you overlap wallpaper don't leave the sharp edge of the paper, make a wavy edge. There is a sound bit is physiology (or should that by psychology?) behind this; the "human eye" is much better at noticing straight lines than it is at noticing curves. This effect is in the 'signal processing' part of the brain, so we're likely to carry it over into other parts of our life.

For example, McKinsey&Co published a paper recently effectively vindicating the need for servant-leadership. There's plenty to take away from the paper, but today I'm going to question the simplicity of drawing a straight line through the happiness versus autonomy data.

Let's be clear, this isn't a question of the validity of the data, it's more about our human tendency to draw a straight line through data. An eclectic set of experiences have me questioning these simple straight lines because complex (usually biological) control systems don't tend to respond in a linear fashion. Maybe it is a trend and more autonomy at work means people are happier. But what is we draw curves?

Below I drawn a a freehand curve over the data. It we suggest a very different conclusion from the research; there is a peak level of autonomy for happiness. Not only that it would suggest increasing autonomy leads to a decline in happiness; after the peak. I'd be more than happy if someone at McKinsey looked at the 'goodness of fit' of different curves.

We could make other conjectures that might change how we look at autonomy.

  1. Too much autonomy in repetitive tasks might reduce happiness.

  2. There is a tight threshold in autonomy between low happiness and high happiness; and we have to work hard to get that balance

  3. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to lead as increasing autonomy leads to unhappiness

  4. (My favorite) Autonomy and happiness may be correlated but are actually a function of some other factor, or factors; in statistics speak they are both dependent variables.

There could be many factors at play here, not least among them is a recent house move where I would question the right for people in real estate to be so happy when they can make other people's life so miserable. But that aside, the funny curve feels more like real life; and I fear that simple questions give simple answers to messy problems, which don't fix anything but makes some people feel better for having done something.

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