Here’s a good pull quote from this article:
The danger of capitalist notions of value is that they’re linked to economic output, a metric that misses, well, almost everything. To an algorithm, the worth of a conversation between two people might be insights into what they’re likely to buy. To the two people, of course, the worth is the conversation itself. Odell contends that when our identities depend solely on what we contribute to a company’s P&L statement, we’re likely to end up losing who we really are.
Let me also direct your attention to this:
He cites the seminal research by economist William Lazonick, who studied S&P 500 companies from 2003 to 2012 and discovered that they routinely spend 54% of their earnings buying back their own stock (reducing the number of outstanding shares and driving up share prices) and 37% of their earnings on dividends — both of which benefit shareholders. That leaves just 9% of earnings for investment in their business and their people.
Hm, OK. Take those two together for a second.
The 200 People But 4 People Matter problem
I traveled a lot for work in 2018, and I had a lot of discussions with guys in different verticals in airport bars, hotel bars, conference suites, and the like. I used this idea I’m about to describe probably 15 times. It was never disagreed with.
Here’s the concept: Let’s say you have a 200-person company, right? There are lots of people running around doing busy things and moving between meetings and the like. In reality, the lights of this company are kept on by the performance of four really good salespeople. There is a “Marketing Coordinator” somewhere with a kid in private school, and if one of those salespeople gets divorced and loses his/her edge for a while, that Marketing Coordinator salary may be dropped, or he/she may be laid off, and that kid isn’t going to private school next year. The ecosystem has 200 people, all of whom we are taught to believe matter and “are part of the team,” but in reality 4 people actually matter and the rest of us need them to keep slaying dragons.
Now, this isn’t a perfect analogy and oftentimes those four are helped out by others. Sometimes the C-Suite does a lot. It does vary. But we all know that we create a lot of bullshit jobs. And in the process of that, we have extra salary and insurance to carry, and we need to perform better, and that falls on a small sliver of people.
The capitalist ethos is about value coming from production, which has gotten very twisted in recent years because many seem to think “busy” and “productive” are somehow the same thing. (They are not.)
It’s weird how we structure companies. Out of every five people, maybe 1.5 to 2 face revenue directly. So, in essence, all the other people are irrelevant to the idea of the company. It’s the same thing as how science looks at a 50 year-old woman without kids and is like “Well, she is biologically useless.” She could have a tremendous amount of friends and admiration, but science’s hard line will say “Nope, she don’t matter.” Well, if you don’t face revenue in a for-profit, the reality is you don’t really matter.
And what happens then?
You try 892 other things to make sure that you will matter in some way, which is usually going to be around →
- Telling everyone how busy you are
- Controlling a process
- Hoarding a subset of information
- Kissing ass of the main stakeholders
- Sitting at your desk at 7pm, even if you’ve done nothing all day, so stakeholders see you as they leave
Those are usually “The Big Five,” although others sneak in too.
When we are not treated as relevant and important, but we still are expected to physically be in a place much of our waking day, we are going to find ways to be seen as relevant and important. This is the nature of being a human being.
This is largely why “Employee Engagement” or “Employee Experience” stats don’t really budge despite all the money, tech, and resources we put at it — because, at the end of the day, you cannot better the experience of someone who feels they don’t matter despite how hard they believe themselves to grind/hustle, and you cannot make them matter to a company that cares primarily about a capitalist value system.
That’s where we’re at, and I don’t think tech fixes that, really.
Now, are you “just a number” to these organizations? At some places, yes. At many places, it’s a more nuanced answer. You are just a number in some ways, but you can still make great friends at work, do some cool projects, and overall show gratitude. The day-to-day experience can matter, even if you might not matter to the people running the show.