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Why Employees Swipe Left for Their Bosses


Dating apps Tinder and Bumble offer lessons on boredom and employee engagement

A young woman of color looking for love on an online dating app
iStock/Annika McFarlane

Vogue dating columnist Annie Lord recently bemoaned the general discontent with the apps that have come to dominate the modern world of courting.

She cites data from the Pew Research Center showing that nearly half of dating app users end up feeling more of a sense of frustration than optimism about the prospects of finding “the one.” Underpinning this discontent is a strong sense that people do not behave particularly well when they are participating in dating apps.

Strategies such as ghosting (when dates vanish without an explanation), benching (when people are put on hold until somebody better comes along) and breadcrumbing (giving just enough attention to maintain interest but never committing) are now common forms of behaviour online. 

In research that I did with a colleague about popular dating apps — namely Tinder and Bumble — we found ghosting is something that often occurs because people are simply… bored. In fact, many people are bored to begin with and install the apps to try to alleviate that boredom.

They are then made more bored by the many unfulfilling encounters they have via the apps, which prompt them to ghost people, despite considering the act rude and inappropriate when it happens to them. The apps themselves often don’t help, with few providing any means to make the conversations between people more interesting. 

Misleading engagement metrics

This seemingly undesirable situation is further compounded by the sense among the app dating companies themselves that the user experience is, in fact, positive. When they assess the usage of the apps by simplistic and aggregate measures, such as number of users, time spent on the site and number of messages users exchange, then the apps could seem to be a roaring success. 

Indeed, the lack of seemingly viable alternatives prompts many of those who delete the apps in frustration to reinstall them and give them another go. This cycle of dismay gives the impression that boredom and dissatisfaction are actually key factors that drive engagement.

It is a discovery with implications that run far beyond the confines of the online dating industry. Consider that the rest of the economy has been in the midst of a so-called “quiet quitting” phenomenon that is driven by similar levels of boredom and a lack of fulfilment at work.

For instance, an anonymous survey conducted at Blind, an online community for tech professionals, revealed that around two-thirds of respondents were bored at work. According to Gallup survey data, just 32 per cent of employees are engaged at work, with nearly 20 per cent saying they are actively disengaged. Staff feel that way in large part because their workplace needs are not being met.

What’s important to employees?

Our research into boredom in the online dating world has a couple of key implications for business. The first is that it is important to measure the right things when it comes to gauging the level of engagement among a workforce. As with dating apps, it can be tempting to focus on the things that are relatively easy to measure and assume this accurately captures engagement.

For instance, employee attendance ticks that box, and managers could assume that an employee sitting at their desk must be engaged. The quiet quitting phenomenon tells us otherwise.

To effectively measure employee engagement, managers need to understand what’s important to their staff. This is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, with some wanting teamwork, others career development and others effective communication.

Managers can then perform what is known as a driver analysis. This analysis attempts to focus on factors that have an impact on engagement through surveys of employees, using Likert scales for each factor. A percentage share for each factor can then be produced, giving managers a good indication of what drives employee engagement among their staff and a chance to address any shortcomings.

Boredom can be useful

The second key takeaway from our research is that it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming boredom is always a bad thing. After all, we are driven by the desire for our workforce to be as engaged as possible, so boredom must mean those efforts are failing. 

Research shows, however, that a degree of boredom can make us more creative. Researchers found that participants who were given a boring task to perform before being asked to create interesting artwork ended up producing more creative projects than those who were not induced by boredom beforehand. This was especially so among participants who had certain personality traits, including cognitive drive, openness to new experiences, intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn new things. 

Inducing boredom in such people triggers so-called divergence-seeking behaviours, which is what the curious among us do to break out of an intellectual straitjacket. It remains to be seen whether (and how) organizations should deliberately try and engineer boredom in the workplace. But it is a reminder that small amounts of boredom can be beneficial.

At the moment, however, boredom is not being channelled in the right way, with some of our interviewees revealing they mostly use dating apps while they’re bored at work. Managers could try to provide more productive outlets for the divergence-seeking behaviours that are produced by boredom, perhaps via enterprise social media and channels that encourage employees to come forward with ideas.

There was a strong sense among the dating app users we studied that they stuck it out because they did not believe that any of the other apps were any better. Their continued usage of the apps, however, seems to result in increasingly cynical and lacklustre engagement, which further exacerbates the boredom spreading through the dating app network. 

For managers, it is important to avoid falling into the same trap. They must ensure that engagement is sought not for the sake of gaming the metrics but for substantial progress on things that truly matter to employees and the organization. Failure to do so seems likely to hurt organizations and result in similar disenchantment among employees as we see among the dating users we interviewed. 

Anh Luong is an assistant professor of business analytics at Warwick Business School. Warwick and Smith School of Business are members of the Council on Business & Society and share expert commentaries such as this essay.