Here’s an article from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business about rising inequality in the United States, and I pull-quoted this as an illustration for you:
Phrased another way: Most dudes (it’s still mostly men) who come to run businesses are not bad people. Some are, yes. But most are just guys (and women) looking to do the job they are expected to do. It’s very important for human beings to feel like they’re excelling at the area they spend most of their time, which is usually going to be a mix of work and family. I think most men who are fathers, for example — again, not all — want to be seen as “good workers/business guys” and “good dads.” Who wants to flop or shit the bed at the two things you most associate with “self,” right?
So the business environment is the problem?
It’s not helping, no. Look at most MBA programs. It’s all about “keep costs down” and “prove growth constantly.” The easiest place for that intersection, unless you have an amazing product or customer service/experience, is “layoff people.” A lot of companies that I’ve seen will boom hire to prove growth, then bust layoff to make costs. That’s good for the dudes at the top — inequality, baby! — but bad for everyone who relies largely on their salary to make everything work for them financially, which is, ahem, most people in industrialized nations. I don’t own no yacht or paintings or Amazon stock, son. I need to get bread. But most of us are just a cog in the machine at some level: Hired to prove the company is “hyper-growing,” then fired to make a number. Second verse, same as the first…
The underlying psychology of work
Already talked a little bit about how it’s important for most people to be seen as good at their jobs. Again, you spend time there. Why would you want to be seen as terrible at something you spend time at, right?
The other thing you need to understand about men is they often view wealth accumulation as a game/fun (not all, but many), they’re usually much more depressed and lonely than they let on (not all, but many), their relationships to spouse and parents and children are changing more than they want to admit, and they grew up with a specific line of thinking (dad/grandpa) on what work “means” and what “the value of work” is. It’s very hard for men to break out of specific patterns. They see the goal as make money, conquer, win, be a provider, be a warrior, be a man, whatever the case may be.
Go try to have a conversation with a company-builder about “compassion in the workplace or something.” That dude will look at you like you are a dog speaking Chinese to him. I know. I have tried to have these conversations. Guys that build companies and grow companies and employ others do not think in the ways normal people think. They think in terms of numbers and “strategic plays” and “revenue standups” and all the stuff I said above … that stuff matters to them, ironically in large part because they’re not actually dealing with or discussing the real stuff, like their wife hating them or their mom having Alzheimer’s or their inability to lift more than 55 pounds anymore.
When you ignore what’s really in front of you, work is a great place to go run and hide behind numbers … because a large chunk of what happens at work isn’t real. It’s just people moving from meeting to call to meeting to project to airport to call to trade show floor to hotel bar to conference call to meeting to Zoom link and pretending what they do is somehow relevant or couldn’t be replaced in 15 seconds by something a guy at Microsoft coded overnight.
Being good at the “play thing” that is work is virtuous to many … do your job and be seen as good at it. If you have that, you can avoid the fact that your wife won’t touch you anymore. So now you absolutely need to have that.
Now think about a concept like “engagement”
First of all, no one who ever built a company thinks they became successful because they were “engaged” in work. They think in terms of:
- Sweat equity
- Long nights
- Strategic thinking
- Run through a wall for my business
- I could sell ice to the Eskimos
They see “engagement” as fluffy. That’s Issue 1.
Issue 2 is, OK, let’s say you hire a real-world consultant and he comes in and says, “Look, part of the engagement issue is salary. You need to pay these people more.” The executive agrees.
Now, 10 months later, a competitor is killing him because he’s doing the same output with people paid half as much. His numbers are better. He’s got less going out to personnel.
Now the first executive, who approved the raises, is losing at the game of work. He’s behind, and guess what? His wife still isn’t touching him and his mom still has Alzheimer’s. So what’s that guy gonna do now?
He’s gonna cut costs, because it’s time to get back to winning at something. So that means a lot of those people who just got a pay bump? They about to get a severance.
This is how things work in many, many places — again, not all — and the reason is pretty simple: Human psychology of the humans who run and build companies is different from the human psychology of the people who work for those companies and try to build a life that way.
Is it wrong for executives to be like this?
It’s not really moral or ethical, but it’s not “wrong” per se. Those people are doing their jobs and trying to win in that realm. You win by cutting costs and rolling out products and building partnerships and proving growth. You don’t win by worrying about people.
I guess that’s the thing that always has triggered me personally. That spreadsheet you are managing, or that email campaign you are working on? Does it have a puppy? Does it have an alcoholic father? Does it have a grandmother in hospice care? No. Because it’s an inanimate thing. It’s just a task, ultimately.
But so much of work is about hearing from people “how important” or “how valuable” the work itself is. No. The work itself is just work; it’s just things, deadlines, units, tasks. The work will always be there.
What’s actually valuable, and what makes the work valuable, is the people around it. The people who interact with it, and mold it, and actually strategize on it, and work together, and build relationships. That’s the value.
But in the course of “just doing your job,” we seem to forget that.