The Fault with Default

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw


Economist Michael Housman was leading a project to figure out why some customer service agents stayed in their jobs longer than others. Armed with data from over 3,000 employees who handled calls for banks, airlines and cellphone companies, he suspected that their employment histories would contain telltale signs about their commitment. He thought that people with a history of job-hopping would quit sooner. It turned out, they didn’t. Employees who had held five jobs in the past five years weren’t any more likely to leave their positions than those who had stayed in the same job for five years.

Hunting for other clues, he noticed his team had captured information about which Internet browser employees had used when they logged in to apply for their jobs. On a whim, he tested whether that choice might be related to quitting. He didn’t expect to find any correlation, assuming that browser preference was purely a matter of taste. But when he looked at the results, he was stunned. Employees who used Firefox or Chrome to browse the Web remained in their jobs 15% longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.

Thinking it was a coincidence, Housman ran the same analysis for absences from work. The pattern was the same. Firefox and Chrome users were 19% less likely to miss work than Internet Explorer and Safari users.

Then he looked at performance. His team had assembled nearly three million data points on sales, customer satisfaction and average call length. The Firefox and Chrome users had significantly higher sales, and their call times were shorter. Their customers were happier, too. After 90 days on the job, the Firefox and Chrome users had customer satisfaction levels that Internet Explorer and Safari users reached only after 120 days at work.

So, why are the Firefox and Chrome users more committed and better performers?

The obvious answer was that they’re more tech savvy. The employees had all taken a computer proficiency test, which assessed their knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, software programs and hardware, as well as a timed test of their typing speed. But the Firefox and Chrome group didn’t prove to have significantly more computer expertise, and they weren’t faster or more accurate typists. Even after accounting for those scores, the browser effect persisted. Technical knowledge and skill weren’t the source of their advantage.

What made the difference was how they obtained the browser. If you own a PC, Internet Explorer is built into Windows. If you’re a Mac user, your computer came pre-installed with Safari. Almost two-thirds of the customer service agents used the default browser, never questioning whether a better one was available.

To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.

The customer service agents who accepted the defaults of Internet Explorer and Safari approached their job the same way. They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling customer complaints. They saw their job descriptions as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days and eventually quit.

The employees who took the initiative to change their browsers to Firefox or Chrome approached their jobs differently. They looked for novel ways of selling to customers and addressing their concerns. When they encountered a situation they didn’t like, they fixed it. Having taken the initiative to improve their circumstances, they had little reason to leave. They created the jobs they wanted. However, they were the exception, not the rule.

We live in an Internet Explorer world. Just as almost two-thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. The starting point is curiosity — pondering why the default exists in the first place. (See Curiositá)

Adapted from Originals by Adam Grant