Moral vs. material goods

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From here:

People are scared because there is a difference between what I call material and moral goods. A moral good is creating a sense of community, a purpose that is meaningful, ethical principles that will make people proud to participate and so on. The difference is that you can give material goods without involving yourself in them. If I buy an orange from you, I give you the money and don’t have to put my heart and soul in it, and you give me the orange. That is it. We both have a good exchange and that is fair.

To summarize that up:

  • Salary: material good
  • Purpose, vision, mission, collaboration, connection, etc.: Moral goods

This creates a lot of issues around work.

Issue 1: How execs tend to think

You absolutely need to understand this: most executives spend all day thinking and talking about money. It’s returns, forecasting, margins, growth rates, etc. That’s so much of their vocabulary and meetings and calls. So, they frame up so much else in terms of money, including people. There are dozens of studies showing that most managers/executives assume someone left because of money, i.e. “They must have gotten more money elsewhere.” Now look, that is often true.

But see, more often than not, I’d argue someone leaves a job because the “moral goods” portion of it was totally broken. There was no culture, context, or vision beyond “Do these tasks urgently and listen to the execs discuss how much money we made at an all-hands meeting.”

So one problem is that everything around the vocabulary at the top is material goods, but what people down the chain need and understand is the moral goods side. Most people in the middle/execution levels of a company don’t really know the money picture, so they can’t access those ideas and vocabulary. They want to know “Hey, is this person one cubicle over an asshole?” The leadership team looks at that person as a number; the employee looks at him as a human being that he/she needs to interact with. That’s a disconnect.

Issue 2: At a certain level, is salary even a differentiator?

Probably not. While it’s always going to be the №1 thing someone investigates about a job, most “tech jobs” generally have a good salary these days, and most jobs down the chain are cost-cut to death in hopes they can eventually be automated out. It’s always going to be a thing people consider, but what’s the real difference between $75,000 and $90,000 at the end of the day, aside from the ability to pay a few more bills?

Issue 3: The “moral goods” stuff is usually lip service

Execs discuss it, but don’t really care. In their minds, who cares if the company has “purpose” if it’s got no money? That’s actually not a bad way to think of a company if you have a stake in it, but I just wish it wasn’t all-consuming in one direction. Because it’s so often lip service, even talking about “purpose” can now feel like a buzzword.

Issue 4: The ultimate material good isn’t really even understood

We have limited salary transparency, and most people don’t even fully understand what their salary represents, so the salary negotiation process tends to see all the power reside with the company side. Most people are probably getting stiffed, aside from pre-existing execs, top tech talent, and friends of the program (i.e. guys who have dads who play golf with important white men).

Issue 5: The career path of execs

You increasingly see stats about execs flipping jobs every 24–40 months, especially CMOs. It’s kind of amazing that executives are often supposed to set the career planning and tone for an organization — and then they stay there maybe 2.5 years max. Ha. But who really cares about someone says about moral goods like community if he’s chasing the cheddar (material goods) and out in 30 months? Executive stuff is like being a NFL coach — once you been one, it doesn’t matter if you suck, someone will keep hiring you for equivalent roles. You stay at the same level because all you need to do is fool one person into thinking “You’ve been there.”

TL:DR — Moral goods should matter more at work, but the conversations are too often about material goods.

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