Epistemic Status: Casual

I highly recommend An Everyone Culture, by Robert Kegan, and Moral Mazes, by Robert Jackall, as companion books on business culture. Moral Mazes is an anthropological study of the culture and implicit ethics of a few large corporations, and is an eye-opening illustration of the problems that arise in those corporations. An Everyone Culture is an introduction to the idea of a “deliberately developmental organization”, an attempt to fix those problems, plus some case studies of companies that implemented “deliberately developmental” practices.

The basic problem that both books observe in corporate life is that everybody in a modern office is trying to conceal their failures and present a misleadingly positive impression of themselves to their employers and coworkers.

This leads to lost productivity.

For instance:

  • The longer one tries to cover up a mistake, the costlier it will be to fix it.
  • The less accurately credit is allocated for success or failure, the harder it will be to incentivize good work.
  • The more employees misinform their bosses, the worse-informed the bosses’ decisions will be.
  • The more people are concerned with maintaining appearances, the less cognitive capacity they will have for productivity and creativity.
  • The more unacceptable it is to acknowledge “personal” concerns (emotions, physical health, intrinsic motivation or lack thereof), the harder it is to fix productivity problems that arise from “personal” problems.

_Moral Mazes _basically takes the view that the Protestant work ethic really died in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when an American economy defined by small business owners and freelance professionals was replaced by an economy defined by larger firms and the rise of the managerial profession. The Protestant work ethic declared that hard work, discipline, and honesty would bring success. The “managerial work ethic” holds that a good employee has quite different “virtues” — things like

  • ability to play politics
  • loyalty & willing to subordinate oneself to one’s manager
  • “flexibility” (the opposite of stubbornness — not holding strong individual opinions)

To give an outside example, the author of “The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective” was coming from a “Protestant work ethic” culture of hard work (though not, of course, actually Protestant) and encountering the “managerial work ethic” culture of American office politics.

Moral Mazes relies on the author’s observations and interviews with managers. I’m sure it’s not a fully objective portrayal — perhaps the author selected the most damning quotes, and perhaps the most disgruntled and cynical managers were the most willing to talk. But the picture the book gives is of a culture where:

  • rank is everything — contradicting your boss, especially in public, is career suicide, and deference to superiors is expected
  • beyond a certain minimum floor of competence, objective job performance doesn’t determine career success, political skill does
  • “credit flows upwards, details flow downwards” — higher-rank managers take credit for work done by their subordinates, and the higher-rank you are, the fewer object-level details you concern yourself with
  • mistakes and bad decisions are reliably concealed; then, when the inevitable catastrophe happens, whoever’s politically vulnerable takes the fall
  • managers are tested for their “flexibility” — someone with strong opinions about the best engineering decisions or with rigid ethical principles will not rise far in their career

If you watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Joel Maisel’s job at the plastics company is a classic example of the managerial work ethic; he’s basically a professional sycophant. He’s burned out and unmotivated, and he leaves to “find himself” as a comedian, but quickly realizes he has no talent at comedy either. Instead, working in his father’s garment business, he comes to life again. He learns the nitty-gritty of the factory floor, the accounting, the machines, the seamstresses and their personal needs and strengths and weaknesses. It’s a beautiful illustration of the difference between fake work and real work.

An Everyone Culture‘s prescription for the problems of deception, sycophancy, and stagnation in conventional companies is complex, but I’d summarize it as follows: creating a culture where everyone talks about mistakes and improvements, and where the personal/professional boundaries are broken down.

This sounds vaguely cultish and shocking, and indeed, the companies profiled (like Bridgewater) are often described as cults. Kegan acknowledges that their practices are outside most of our comfort zones, but believes that nothing inside the range of what we think of as a normal workplace will solve workplace dysfunctions.

What distinguishes the companies profiled in the book is a lot of talk, about issues that would ordinarily be considered too “personal” for work. When a failure occurs, a DDO looks for the root cause, as you would in a kaizen system, but it won’t stop there — people will also ask what personal or psychological issue caused the mistake. Does this person have a tendency towards overconfidence that they need to work on? Were they afraid of looking bad? Do they need to learn to consider others’ feelings more?

It’s vulnerable to be laid bare in this way, but, at least in the ideal of a DDO, everyone does it, from the interns to the CEO, to the point that people internalize that having flaws and a personal life is nothing to hide. Some people would find this horrifically intrusive, but others find it a relief.

I’ve never worked in a DDO, but I think I might like it; with enough mandated transparency, I’d be forced to override the temptation to hide flaws and make myself look better, and could focus better on actually doing good work.

The cost, of course, is way more communication about seemingly non-work-related things. You’d be processing personal stuff with coworkers all the time. The hope is that this is actually cheaper than the costs of the bad decisions made when you don’t have enough honest communication, but it’s an empirical matter whether that works out in practice, and the authors don’t have data so far.