If you are like most people, you probably recognize intuitively that your genes—the DNA that makes you who you are—affect your work life.
At the most basic level, you probably believe that being tall is important to becoming a professional basketball player, and you might even blame your height for the fact that you don’t play for the New York Knicks. If you thought about it a little bit more, you’d probably realize that your genes affect other things about your work life, too. If you are among the large number of people who wear glasses or contact lenses because your eyesight is worse than 20/70, you don’t have good enough vision to be a military pilot (1). And unless you are among the small number of supermodels reading this, you might have even cursed (maybe just once or twice) your parents for the genes that kept you from that modeling career.
But even though you probably recognize at some level that your genes affect your work life, you probably haven’t thought about the myriad of influences that your genes have on your job choice, work performance, work values, career, job satisfaction, and a variety of other aspects of life at the office. Moreover, you are unlikely to have considered the wide-ranging implications that genetic effects have for you, your employer and for policy makers.
For decades now, researchers have been systematically studying the effect of genes on human activity. The results of these efforts might seem astonishing to people unaccustomed to thinking about genetics. Our DNA affects pretty much all aspects of behavior, from educational performance to job satisfaction to entrepreneurship, to voting preferences, and so on. But our genes affect much more than our level of intelligence or our personality; they also affect whether we generally view the world positively or negatively, whether we have high or low activity levels, whether we are better at math or writing, whether we are rich or poor, whether we are satisfied with or hate our jobs and whether we want to start our own businesses or work for someone else. Our genes even influence more than half of the difference between us in the quality of our first impressions (2) and the odds that we will vote in an election (3). And yet, despite the large body of research showing that genes influence a wide range of human behaviors, including many that are found in the workplace, the role of genetics gets a couple of paragraphs of mention, at most, in management textbooks.
But just because research on genetics lies outside most writers’ preconceived notions doesn’t mean genes are irrelevant.
Even though people are complex, and what we do in organizations is influenced by a wide variety of factors, genetics research can help us to understand how we act in the workplace. And even if you don’t like the idea of genetic influences on job-related behavior, you can’t make these effects go away by ignoring them.
Whatever your view on genetics, you need to consider how they influence activity in the work world. Because genes matter, understanding how they affect behavior is important to employers, employees and policy makers. Very simply, my thesis is that it is very unlikely that what people do in organizations is solely the result of environmental forces. Genetic factors influence the tendency of people to engage in workplace behaviors in a myriad of ways, and these effects have implications that you should be aware of.
So why should you care?
Because scientists, at least, now recognize that what you do at work is influenced by your genes. In fact, studies show that over one-third of the difference between people on virtually every employment-related dimension investigated, including work interests, work values, job satisfaction, job choice, leadership turnover, job performance and income, is genetic.
The effect of your genes on work-related behavior is actually becoming more important over time. Genetics accounts for more of the difference among people when variation in environmental conditions narrows. And the environment in developed countries has been affecting people more equally over time. For example, 250 years ago, if your father was a merchant, then you’d probably have been a merchant, too. If your dad was a member of the aristocracy, then, well, your life would have been quite good.
Seeing how your genes affect you on the job will help you understand why you do what you do. Research shows that most people are very poor at self-assessment. Because most of us generally don’t have a good sense of how we think and why we act, we don’t do as well at most activities as we could. Anything—genetic or environmental—that enables us to better understand ourselves helps to improve our work performance. So seeing how genes affect employment-related behavior will help you in the same way that recognizing other influences on how you act at work, from the temperature of your office to the tone of your boss’s voice, impacts the way you do your job.
Moreover, your success in the work world depends on your ability to make the most of “what you’ve got”—your skills, personality, attitude, and so on. Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses lie helps you to accentuate the former and compensate for the latter, making you more effective at leading, managing, making decisions or just being happy in your job (4). This is true whether your advantages and disadvantages are the result of how your parents raised you or the genes they gave you (5). On the other hand, knowledge of how genetics influences your behavior is also useful for acting in ways contrary to your “nature.” Nonetheless, how you behave at work is not genetically predetermined; your genes just make you more likely to conduct yourself in certain ways and not others. You can always overcome your genetic predispositions, and information about your natural tendencies helps you to identify where to put your efforts to do so.
Understanding the influence of genetics on work-related behaviors highlights the importance of fit between people and organizations. Again, people have different attitudes, skills and abilities, which aren’t easy to change, because they depend, in part, on genetic factors. Even though people can alter their beliefs and abilities, innate tendencies create resistance to change, pushing attitudes and skills to be consistent with genetic predispositions. Because your attitudes, skills, and abilities are relatively difficult to shift, having the right fit for your job is important to your performance and your happiness.
Knowledge of genetic effects on work-related behaviors helps to make sense of the concept of fairness in the work world. We often assume that everyone has equal odds of achieving a variety of organizational outcomes: earnings, promotion, job satisfaction, and so on. But, in reality, their chances are not the same. People have different personalities, attitudes, skills and abilities, and these individual attributes influence our odds of making a lot of money, or becoming a company CEO. Of course, this point really shouldn’t surprise you. If you watch “American Idol,” you almost certainly realize not everyone has the voice to become a professional singer.
The unlevel playing field raises the fairness question. For instance, some people have an innate tendency to be good leaders. Is it fair to reward employees financially for successfully completing leadership training programs, as some companies do? After all, that is tantamount to paying some employees, at least partially, for being born with the right genes. This isn’t very fair, especially when you realize that we don’t pay employees extra for being good-looking, even though their attractiveness affects their performance as leaders, in sales, and a host of other things. So why should we reward people for being born with a genetic predisposition to develop charisma but not an innate tendency to be attractive, when both of these attributes increase the odds that someone will be a good leader? If we are rewarding employees for having “good genes,” why not compensate for all of them?
In addition, knowing about the influence of genetics helps us to be more realistic about our ability to alter people’s work-related behavior through organizational design initiatives, incentive programs, changes to work climate, etc. Understanding genetic effects on behavior tells us how much changes in external factors should influence work-related behaviors. If genetic factors were to account for all of the difference in people’s on-the-job behavior, then environmental factors, such as pay or working conditions, would have no effect at all. So the genetic portion of the variance in work-related outcomes tells us whether changing external factors is likely to have a small or a large impact.
Finally, understanding genetics will help you to identify the right external forces to actually alter workplace outcomes.
Genetic factors often interact with environmental influences to affect behavior. So, if you want to alter how people act, you need to know what external factor will trigger a behavioral change. Consider leadership. Anyone interested in developing leaders needs to know the right trigger to stimulate innate predispositions to taking charge. Recent evidence shows that people genetically predisposed to be leaders take on leadership roles in response to overcoming adversity. But get the trigger wrong and those predisposed to become leaders don’t take advantage of their innate tendencies.
In short, the facts are clear: Genetic factors influence people’s job-related behavior in a variety of different ways. Scholarship in this area is in its infancy, with scientists having identified only a small number of genes that affect how you act in the workplace—impacting such disparate dimensions as leadership, job satisfaction, decision making and entrepreneurship.
The implications that emerge from genetic effects on work behavior are profound, including changing how we think about the balance between selection and training, altering our expectations of the effectiveness of efforts to enhance job satisfaction and work performance—and spurring the development of targeted approaches to management.
Scott Shane, G’91, GrW’92, is a professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University. This piece is adapted from his new book, Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Genes Affect Your Work Life.
5. Hamer and Copeland, Living with Our Genes.