Yesterday I was bored and depressed around 3pm, because I’m 38 and have virtually no career prospects at this moment, so of course I was listening to some podcasts. (Hey, at previous times in the last year I’d be drinking, so I view this as an improvement.) I got to some podcast about work. I honestly forget the title. I scrolled ahead to about the 10-minute mark because the intro was boring. Whoever the guest was said something like this →
“If you have a troublemaker on your team, or someone who tells it like it is, promote them. They understand where the growth areas are.”
Sure, sure. That might be true. They also just might be a total asshole, which also happens.
But let’s realistically think about this for a second. A standard boss is faced with a troublemaker, or someone that “tells it like it is.” I would say the ratio of action for a standard boss looks like this:
- 99.2% of the time: Performance Improvement Plan or fired
- 0.8% of the time: Promoted or used in a strategic way, i.e. “devil’s advocate internally”
You have to understand the psychology of a workplace to say stuff about a workplace. Work is largely about control. We gussy it up in lots of other things, but it’s not really about “innovative” or “productivity” or “happiness” or anything else. Maybe some individuals and some silos believe that. Broadly, at the scale level, work is about control. People do not love the “slavery-modern work” parallels, but they do exist.
When something is about control, subsequently logic is going to fade from that discussion. So yes, someone that sees the issues in your business might be a good candidate for a new role or a type of promotion or to help you recognize blind spots. YES! YES! YES!
But in reality, that person will be fired in most workplaces because that’s how managers think. They want heads-down drones to hit meaningless targets so that they (the manager) can tell their boss “Well, here’s a spreadsheet from Tommy.” The boss’ boss will then not look at the spreadsheet, meaning Tommy’s salary could be flushed down the nearest toilet with no true consequence, but hey. Tommy wants to buy some Jack in the Box tonight, and who am I to judge that?
Some other headlines I’ve seen recently that make me want to gag
- “Put Purpose At The Core Of Your Strategy:” No shit. Ideally organizations would do this. They almost never do, though. The actual reality is that most “strategy” is set by senior executives, and because they don’t know what “strategy” is and confuse it usually with “logistics,” no “strategy” is ever actually set. Basically a bunch of stuff happens and we hope the financial acronyms are in the positive column. Then we go home and watch Netflix and come up with reasons not to have sex. Did I just describe late-stage capitalism pretty well or what? And Netflix still loses money!
- “We need startups that don’t focus on growth:” Saw this headline this morning. Laughed for like 20 minutes. Whoever wrote that headline does not understand what a “startup” is or how they often get money. You get money from someone because they expect to make more money from your money. That’s the entire fucking game. Henceforth, one needs to grow, or even “blitz-scale” if you will, because that is what your investors want. You know what we call a startup that doesn’t focus on growth? A bunch of unemployed guys applying to engineer jobs at Oracle.
- “How Leaders Can Get The Most Out Of Feedback:” Uh, actually solicit it, or listen to it when it comes? I don’t know. Is this brain surgery?
- “Ageism is a problem at work, and starts earlier than you think:” Indeed. It honestly probably starts with anyone not considered a millennial anymore, given how much attention we pay there, which is ironic because they have no money to actually buy anything these companies are selling …
Look, I know headline writing is hard…
… I did it for ESPN.com for a while and it ain’t easy, and I’m not great at it for my own site either, as you can see above.
But the problem with a lot of business journalism — the articles and the headlines — to me at least, is that we frame arguments without any context for how people that come to run businesses think about their business. Jeff Bezos does not think like Marty Middle Manager in Accounts. They are almost not even the same species of thing. Hardcore biz guys think in acronyms, numbers, costs, buzzwords, and getting rid of fat (i.e. people) when the people don’t “tow the line,” i.e. follow the strategy that’s really a logistical plan.
Point being, we always try to take these massively-complicated, thousands-of-personalities-inhabiting-the-same-space environments, right? And we try to condense them to these simplistic arguments that don’t help anyone actually achieve anything back in those places. I know not everything can be a 100,000-word message of clarity — and even books, which purport to do that, often don’t do that — but we need to stop simplifying and lying to ourselves about how work actually works for the purposes of getting clicks. It ain’t helping anyone.