You look at something like The Mueller Report. It feels like media coverage of that deal was roadblocked for maybe two years. Every night, it seems like every show on cable had to mention it once or twice. Now, I realize cable news is a very specific thing and designed to inflame in many ways, but even the Democrats apparently started realizing over time that fewer and fewer people cared about the Mueller Report compared to, say, “kitchen-table issues.”
During the time all that was happening with the report, I probably had 20–30 conversations at bars, at parties, at networking events, etc. where some political thing came up. I’d say about half the time, no one knew what the Mueller Report was, and 5–6 of the people didn’t even know who Mueller was. In the same time frame, I met a female about 29 who didn’t know who Joe Biden was, even though he would have been Vice President of her country for most of her 20s.
Now, am I about to make a point about people being uninformed? I could. I don’t really want to do this in the context of politics, even though we have research about how uninformed (at least) the American electorate has become, and that lack of information is quite likely harmful to democracy.
I think it’s a bigger issue, though. I think it’s less about “not knowing” and more about “not caring.” The easiest political stat would be turnout. Overall voter turnout in 2016 was about 61 percent, for example. That’s not bad, but it’s still a D-Minus on a test in school and still leaves 4 in 10 Americans who could vote on the sidelines.
Now, in politics I think this all makes sense. Politicians have been spewing bullshit for so long that many people probably think none of it matters, and another huge chunk can’t easily get to a poll, or — to be honest — their vote is probably suppressed in some way. So we have a lot of issues, for sure. Now let’s abandon politics.
What about work?
Work I think is similar, or at least as I’ve observed over the last 16–17 years. Oftentimes in companies, there is some big initiative that only the top dogs talk about incessantly for a few weeks, and then it feels like absolutely nothing happened and the status quo persists for another two years.
There are lots of reasons for this, and I’ve been blogging about them for a half-decade. The biggest reason is that change is hard and that’s not going to shift anytime soon. The second-biggest reason is that change initiatives are often done in a corporate/consultant vacuum, and when said new “strategy” isn’t aligned with the day-to-day work of the people that need to achieve things, well, the strategy is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
About 2–3 months ago, I talked to the CEO of an internal communications company. He said that a lot of his customers come to him and say, “I didn’t realize this until recently, but when I send out an internal document or email, I do have competitors. Stuff like Instagram!” I am surprised it is taking leaders this long to realize this. I’ve been in meetings in different offices for the last 3–4 years and there’s always a half-dozen people on social media or whatever sites, just scrolling, even when a SVP is discussing the future of the company or whatever.
While I guess I generally think the idea of “an attention economy” is a bubble, I do think we have a problem with attention spans for sure. Do I believe the goldfish stuff? No. But do I think people tend to care a lot about the superficial bullshit of what’s been posted recently and less about the bigger issues like who’s leading stuff or what’s happening with the place that gives you a paycheck? (Or, ya know, obesity.) Yes, I’d say that’s true.
The problem of too much bullshit
Eventually you want people to be real and stop lying to you. Politics is all about “We will make your life better! We will have you pay less taxes!” Then it doesn’t really happen — I’ve paid the government three years in a row now, for example — and everyone is using rehearsed messaging and buzzwords, and it just feels like the same old shit all the time. Lots promised, nothing gained. Alas.
In fact, Trump being seen as “real” — albeit sometimes unhinged — was definitely a factor in his rise.
It’s the same shit at work. We’ve all had the boss who promises us a bigger raise or more responsibilities, and then review time/end of year comes and he says “Well, we just can’t this year. It was a tough one at the margin!” Two weeks later, you see him driving a new car. When it’s all about the top being vetted and served by others, which most companies eventually do become, it’s all just reams of bullshit. It’s hard to believe anything anymore.
When you get to a place where you can’t believe the message around you, you check out and go focus on the stuff you care about, be that fitness influencers or day drinking or CrossFit or co-working spaces or Tinder or whatever it may be. The bullshit becomes more logical and relevant to the end recipient when the message was supposed to. Now people care less. Now you have disengagement.
Somehow we’ve created millions of theories about engagement at work, and seemingly millions of software options to address it, but in reality it’s pretty simple: when the message reeks of garbage and the managers don’t actually manage, people become disengaged. That’s not rocket science or brain surgery or your preferred analogy. It’s also not going to be solved with software. Software takes stuff to scale and force multiplies it. It doesn’t fix the fact that Victor VP has feces hanging from the corner of his mouth during an all-hands message.
Life is short and time is precious
I personally think stuff like IG is stupid, but I am sure people who love IG look at stuff I do and say it’s stupid too. Fact of the matter (and the world) is, people prioritize what they want to prioritize.
Again, not rocket science.
But to think that every voter in Kansas struggling to get food on the table knows who Putin or Mueller is? No. And to think every phone-wielding, selfie-loving chica at Widgets HQ cares about the new revenue processes? Nope. People don’t care nearly as much about stuff as we think.
Oh and hey, when I was writing this, my friend messaged me and showed me a survey that 50 percent of people in (Kansas/Missouri, I believe) don’t know what county they live in. Hmm. Again, people care about what matters to them specifically and what they find fun/want to spend time on, with a slice of “I need to spend time on this,” i.e. work, i.e. a paycheck. Do they really care about Cory Booker’s messaging or Donald the SVP’s growth numbers? I wouldn’t bet on it.