Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The devastating effects of uncertainty

Arab teachers from around the Middle East come to Abu Dhabi to teach in public schools. They benefit immensely from the easy lifestyle that this place affords. Their salaries are often more than triple the amount they would receive as teachers in their respective countries. However, there is one cost that needs to be considered.

They have no job security. None.

Tomorrow they could be fired. Indeed, just last week all the English (as in literature, not language) high school teachers were let go. For the thousands suddenly without work, there was no forewarning - no prior announcements. But, teachers had, as they always have, the constant creeping feeling of impending termination.

What does this feeling do to work ethic?

I'll tell you. Uncertainty can decimate work ethic.

Now, to be fair, we all face uncertainty in the workplace. Some of us more than others. Specifically speaking of the potential to be terminated; most of us so called 'professionals' have contracts that protect us from arbitrary decisions made by high level executives. Here, however, especially when working for certain branches of the government, contracts seem to have minimal effect.

I suspect there is a threshold amount of uncertainty beyond which work ethic falls to zero. That could be explained in a graph (my inner economist speaking...) but I'm going to try to explain it with words.

Up to a point uncertainty could be a motivating factor:

         "If you don't work hard, you could be fired!"

When uncertainty includes arbitrariness, it is somewhat of a de-motivator:

          "No matter how hard you work, you could be fired!"

But when uncertainty and arbitrariness pass a certain threshold, people simply don't give a damn anymore:

          "You are probably going to get fired no matter how hard you work."

This is the point where high school teachers are in Abu Dhabi. And, the point many 'ex-pat' professionals are approaching here. Arbitrariness and uncertainty perpetuated by a ridiculously top heavy decision making structure are wreaking havoc on productiveness in this sandy Emirate.

I think the broader concept of the uncertainty threshold can be expanded to many sectors of employment. I imagine poor farmers, in say, Tanzania, facing terrible uncertainty (and arbitrariness) waiting for the rains to come. Should they spend that extra money on fertilizer if the chance of rain is pretty damn slim? Frosty beers do give immediate benefits! I don't mean to generalize that all Tanzanian farmers are tempted by alcohol, just that If I were faced with those choices I'm not sure if I could resist.

Ok, I had to draw one.... :)

Of course, incentives can differ wildly depending on the type of job. Some people that are perfectly secure in their job can maintain high levels of productivity...