Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Is the Corporate Ladder Dehumanizing?

One of the blogs I get a great deal of pleasure from reading is Video Meliora, written by TS, this because he is a creature of wide ranging interesting and enjoyable prose style.

A couple days ago, he linked to a post by ZippyCatholic about how life in the corporate world demands constant increases in productivity: up or out. Or to use Zippy's metaphor: Work is a treadmill, and the speed doubles every ten years.

Zippy is in turn writing about a post on What's Wrong With The World by Lydia McGrew.

McGrew is a homeschooling mother and (I surmise from her introduction) the wife of an academic, and so while she holds to capitalistic ideals, she says she has not been recently familiar with corporate experience. She was, thus, must distressed to have a recent conversation with a friend about "development" as it is demanded in the corporate world:
He explained that in his area there is intense pressure constantly to be changing one's role in the company. This is billed as "developing," "advancing." "Move up or move out," is the basic message. Even if, as does sometimes happen, you do well at your job and would prefer to keep doing it, and even if your immediate superior likes you and would like to keep you in your present position, the superior himself comes under pressure for not "developing his people." Ambition is treated as worthwhile in itself, and its absence as a sign that there is something wrong with you as an employee. Not even a sign, really--as definitionally something wrong with you as an employee. Finding something you like and trying to keep doing it well, perhaps even learning to do it better and better? How passe! How quaint! How regressive!....

I was thus confronted with an image of some previously unknown circle in Dante's Inferno, a place of ceaseless, meaningless motion for the sake of motion. For this motion does not enable the hot dog company to make better hot dogs, nor to make them more efficiently, nor to serve their customers better. It doesn't enable the computer company to make a more user-friendly product or a product that makes its customers' lives better. Such motion from role to role in a company, even if labeled "upward," does not or certainly need not mean that the employee is really growing, is really becoming better at what he does, is really helping his company to do what it does better. It need not even mean that he is doing better at some intangible work such as helping the company to advertise or market its product. On the contrary, he has to keep learning to do something new every few years, just when he was getting wise and experienced in his old role....

In fact, this "move up or move out" imperative makes the old idea of being a cog in a machine look rather pleasant by comparison. Do you want the cogs in your car to keep randomly evolving into something different? Not at all. You might end up with a car that didn't run at all, or that ran much worse than before. If the employees were cogs in a machine, their employers would be grateful that they keep on playing their coggish roles efficiently and well and that they do so indefinitely, making the company like a machine that just keeps on forever running sweetly on well-oiled wheels. If the model of employees as cogs in a machine is modern, it seems to me that the corporate world of "move up or move out" is post-modern, a world where everything must morph for the sake of morphing and where this grotesque and pointless movement is called "growth."
Lydia considers this to be a sort of post-modern heresy in regards to capitalism, and a betrayal of its real ideals, which she describes as "means of people's doing things they want to do, doing them well, and profiting from the labor of doing them well".

Zippy looks at the same problem and sees it as built into capitalism, or at least to the structure of the stock-issuing company:
You can't think of a company as a 'fixed' entity like a car, or even like a cow (a "cash cow" company will get a low market value even if it has high profits, while a growth company will get high market value even with relatively low [current] profits). It is a false analogy. Every 'human resource' in the company is an asset, and assets that do not appreciate in value over time actually lose money for the company when measured against inflation; so they have to be gotten rid of. Just because they store some value 'in place' doesn't mean they are worth keeping around: storing value 'in place' is money in a mattress, worth far less than productive, growing capital....

An engineer who does the same job for forty years is a dead asset. We have to keep putting money into him, usually increasing amounts over time, and get some marginal benefit from his increased experience but no true upgrade in his productivity which translates to the bottom line. Rather he needs to be constantly thinking about how to obsolete himself, replace himself with machines and cheaper less skilled labor so he can move up to the next thing. Upward mobility pressure on employees is not pointless. Growth-oriented ambitious people will do well in an environment of continual upward pressure. People who enjoy what they do and want to do it for the rest of their careers and live like human beings may be made miserable by that situation, but they aren't the ones who will contribute large leaps of growth to the business anyway, so they don't matter. It is more profitable to get rid of them and staff with the other kind of people.

Step back for a second and think about the logic of earning profits from capital. If you invest your money and earn 10% simple non-compounding interest, your money doubles in ten years. At the end of that ten years you can invest it again and earn twice as much for the next ten years. The same asset now has to be twice as productive. This upward pressure applies to all investment assets, and employees are investment assets: it costs money to acquire them and keep them around just like anything else. It is true that many assets depreciate -- lose value over time. Obviously a company in the business of making money (which is reflected in share prices) wants all of its assets to depreciate in real terms as little as possible, and to appreciate in value if possible.

So an employee who produces X today had better produce 2X ten years from now, just to keep up. Why, you ask? Because they can. And if they can't, someone else will replace them. Every asset in a company has this upward bias against depreciation and in favor of appreciation.
Now, I do know about and understand the sort of at times foolish emphasis on "moving up" that is often found in corporate environments. A good friend my parents age who is a very, very good computer programmer ran into a problem some years back where she was essentially told she'd been promoted as far as she could be as a programmer and she would now need to stop programming and move into "management" if she wanted to advance any farther. She pointed out that her work had been key to a number of their very important projects, and said that she wanted to continue programming, though she was open to supervising other programmers as well. In the end, she won, and they created a "senior software engineer" track which allowed her and other programmers who wanted to remain programmers to do what they did best rather than moving into something they had not desire to do.

So yes, the emphasis on development can get a bit silly at times. It is absolutely not my desire to defend the constellation of all the foolish or dehumanizing corporate practices out there, because there are plenty of both, but at the same time I do want to defend the idea of continuing "career development" as not necessarily being dehumanizing -- indeed, as often being humanizing. I think Lydia and Zippy are perhaps missing the sense in which an expectation of increasing productivity is actually good for employees, both economically and as human beings.

Certainly, being made to jump through hoops which one sees no point in can be dehumanizing, but instead of looking at the bureaucratic failure of the "development plan" idea, let's at least look at the purpose behind it. Lydia seems to be assuming some sort of manufacturing/production oriented company, which produces a product, markets it, and ships it out to retailers to sell. It's an easily understood model, so let's run with it. Say a company makes rubber ducks. An earnest young man comes to work for them, and he starts in the factory, inspecting ducks as they come out of the molds and making sure that they are correctly formed. He does well, comes in on time, and is seen as a valuable employee. So after a year, his boss comes to our character and tells him, "You seem like a solid and promising employee. I'd like to see you learn more about the business and move up in the company. You should consider moving up to either running the molding and extruding machinery or overseeing the duck painting. Which interests you?"

The pain! The humanity! Is this poor young man being dehumanized? Is he being forced to do something else just as he was getting truly good at inspecting recently molded ducks? I'd say no. Indeed, if you want your employees to be involved in the company, to understand its workings, and to feel a sense of ownership in what they produce, you want your employees to understand and experience as much as possible of all the aspects of what the company does. Asking an employee to "develop", to move about the company, learn different roles, and move up is an invitation to become more involved in the company, more of an owner -- more of a person and less of a cog.

But say that our young man hates ducks. He cares little for the company other than his paycheck, and he really cares mainly about getting off work on time and going home to read his beloved 18th century Icelandic poets -- a small group, but a worthy one. He doesn't want to know more about the company. He'd prefer to just do the same thing and not exert extra mental effort in learning other roles. After all, he's good at expecting ducks, and since he can do it on auto-pilot he can mental recite Icelandic poetry while he does so. So he turns down the offer and sticks to duck inspection. A few more times over the ensuing months his manager invites him to move up, but always the young man refuses.

Now at this point the manager is getting frustrated. Our young man is sitting in what is generally considered an entry level job, a gateway into the company and a way of discovering new talent. The company believes strongly in hiring at the bottom and promoting from within, but this promising employee shows no signs of wanting to move up, and he's taking up space that could be taken up by someone who does want to learn more about the company and move up. So after another year, the manager delivers an ultimatum: up or out. Do you want to move up, or do you not want to have a future at the company? At this point, the young man becomes sullen and goes off to write long articles on the internet about how capitalism stamps out the love of poetry in man.

Certainly, one can see why the young man, who simply wants to pull in enough of a paycheck to pay for his books of Icelandic poetry without having to devote too much of his mental energy to the process, is dissatisfied. And yet, has the the company really wronged him so very much, or is his manager rightly frustrated at the young man's complete lack of interest in becoming a more integral part of the company? Is it perhaps a matter of the young man simply having selecting the wrong career? And honestly, wouldn't most of us rather have the boss who asks us to move up and learn more about the company (like the one in the example) than one who insists that we remain in one place and doesn't want us moving up?

Now on Zippy's post, I'd just like to point out an aspect of the economics which Zippy doubtless knows, but perhaps overlooked in this particular example: Companies do not have fixed numbers of employees. Yes, an employee can be seen as a resource, and a company does have an incentive to see that resource increase in value over time. (Though the net gain is not as much as he's suggesting, since when your employees increase in productivity 10% every year, you can bet that they're getting paid more every year as well, though probably not 10% more.) But generally, companies that are expanding hire more employees as well. And "increased productivity" is often a matter not so much of all the employees being required to work harder, but of coming up with processes (often via the employees themselves) which allow the same employee to do the same amount or less work, while producing more product. So yes, employees are expected to become massively more productive over time if the company is to grow radically, but that's not just a matter of forcing the employees to work harder. And it's generally good for the employees in that they end up making a good deal more.

Why object to all this? Well, I for one am very glad that I'm not still doing the same job I was when I left college seven years ago. I've enjoyed learning to be vastly more productive and gaining vastly more responsibility than I had seven years ago, and I'm also very glad that I'm able to make 3x what I made back then. That allows me to have a house and a family and to take pretty good care of both. So as for increasing productivity, I'm all for it. Indeed, I would say that increasing one's productivity generally results in less dehumanization in one's work rather than more.

11 comments:

TS said...

Very interesting post, and one that hits a bit too close to home given my love for Icelandic poetry, or at least its metaphoric equivalent.

This is one of the best thing about blogging, seeing the differing perpectives about a topic as important as work - especially when differing is done so respectfully.

Thanks for the kind words on my blog btw. (I kept thinking I was heading for a "but....".)

True story: A month ago my boss said that we all needed development plans since they were being enforced now.

I said flippantly: "how about I read a classic novel? That's broadening. That's development." I told him I read far too much non-fiction and need more liberal arts in my reading diet.

Surprisingly (or not, because he started out as an English major in college) he enthusiastically agreed and we discussed which one to choose.

Well my boss had told a co-worker about my development plan and that co-worker ran and told my bosses' boss, and that boss pulled rank and said "no way is that going to fly".

Sigh.

Anyway, development can certainly be good for us. Still, I wonder how much ownership can you feel in a large corporation even as a manager? I recall a 50-something manager retirement telling me, "I wish I'd worked for a small company." Been at this large corporation 30 yrs.

Although, as you point out, your development was very helpful. And certainly I've had many changes in my job over the years that have kept me from burnout.

Darwin said...

Personally I go more for 10th century Icelandic poetry than 18th, but I guess the general idea is the same...

It must be the time of year for development plans. I just had to start working on mine yesterday. Though really, I'm lucky, I guess, in that I find business itself rather interesting, so poking around into different aspects of it is actually something I enjoy.

I spent my first three years at a 20-person Jewish family owned business (a distributor of industrial chemicals) and then moved to Texas to work for a Fortune 100 technology company for the last four years, with a period of working on my own as a we designer in between. So I've tried a nibble from each plate in the career world and enjoyed each, though each can have massively downcasting elements as well. Which I suppose makes me one of those much derided "pro business" types.

j. christian said...

"Employee development" can feel like a nuisance to someone with an introverted or introspective personality. I know because that's my personality, too, and I always hated the annual development plan and performance review. I'd be more content to hone my expertise in an area until it was second nature and I could spend that mental dividend elsewhere (but probably not on Icelandic poetry. Sorry.)

Having said that, I think Darwin is right. First off, Zippy is getting the economics wrong. Higher productivity doesn't necessarily mean working harder. It's one way to increase productivity, but it's not the best way. And being given the chance to practice a broader range of skills pushes us introverts outside our comfort zone and actually helps our job prospects should we leave a company.

Part of the problem is that, if you're the type of introvert who'd rather write blog treatises, you're not going to be enthusiastic about most opportunities to "move up." The reason is that, apart from getting a broader sense of the mission of the business, it requires you go into the selling of the business. In my experience, that's true even of the most "un-capitalist" sectors as well. Even in government, academia, and nonprofits, moving up implies marketing and selling what it is your organization does. It involves managing and administering, too, which also means more social interaction -- another introvert bogeyman.

I was a management consultant for several years after college, and I enjoyed the analytical "grunt work" that went into it. But I couldn't expect to do that forever; eventually, someone needs to develop business and sell the organization to clients. I give my bosses credit for giving me gentle nudges here and there to get me out of my cubicle and into more challenging (for an introvert) work. Were they being dehumanizing, or were they trying to help me along in my career?

TS said...

I'm pro-capitalism like I'm pro-democracy: both are very imperfect but much better than the alternatives.

zippy said...

First off, Zippy is getting the economics wrong. Higher productivity doesn't necessarily mean working harder.

The point might be more telling if I had actually made that claim of necessity somewhere.

Part of the problem is that, if you're the type of introvert who'd rather write blog treatises, you're not going to be enthusiastic about most opportunities to "move up."

FWIW, my last corporate title was President and CEO. The one before that was Executive Vice President (I was also on the board of directors of that public company); and the one before that was also President and CEO. So the ad hominem might possibly rest on a bit of a misreading of me. Again, FWIW.

Darwin said...

FWIW, my last corporate title was President and CEO. The one before that was Executive Vice President (I was also on the board of directors of that public company); and the one before that was also President and CEO.

If you read a little more carefully, Zippy, I think you'll find that J. Christian was describing himself.

Actually, it was your self-proclaimed titan-of-industry status that made the post ring so false for me. You of all people should know that companies do not valuate primarily as a result of increasing the capital value of their employees, and that said increases in productivity are more the result of better company processes than demanding that employees switch positions, have development plans, etc.

Finally, at least in my humble opinion, if you want to pull rank by experience you have to be willing not to be anonymous. Personally, I prefer my anonymity, so I avoid that tactic. But if you want to make the tactic yours, details are required. I don't particularly imagine you not to be honest, but the blogsphere is full of people who aren't, and so arguments from authority fall flat if unsubstantiated.

zippy said...

If you read a little more carefully, Zippy, I think you'll find that J. Christian was describing himself.

That is a possible, though not at all the most obvious, reading.

You of all people should know that companies do not valuate primarily as a result of increasing the capital value of their employees,...

Of course I never said that they did. Companies manage the equity value of everything, and employees are one piece of everything.

As for the rest, I post under a pseudonym for my own reasons, and (aside from the few folks who do know who I am in "real life") people are free to believe me, or not. When I contrast my real experience to introverts who would rather write blog treatises than move up, I am stating plain facts.

In point of fact I used to think very much like many of the obviously young and/or inexperienced people who have commented think -- indeed I was much worse, quite contemptuous of those who were unable to keep up with me; until I saw enough real people demoralized and destroyed by the very things we are discussing.

Sarahndipity said...

As an introverted poet, this post also hit home for me. :) I am not at all enthusiastic about “climbing the corporate ladder.” But Darwin does have a point that it’s not really fair to your company to just stay in one place for too long.

I think Darwin hit the nail on the head when he said that our hypothetical duck inspector is maybe just in the wrong career. In the right career, you’ll be more excited about moving up and learning more. If you don’t want to learn more, you’re probably not doing something that interests you.

This can be a bit of a Catch-22, though, especially for men who have to support families, because they need to balance finding something that interests them with finding something that pays enough money. I’m a woman, so this isn’t as much of an issue for me, but even as a woman it’s frustrating being an arts-and-literature type in a world where almost everything that interests me doesn’t pay much. I finally found something I really like – graphic design – that pays decently. But being a science or business type would make things easier.

Adding another layer of frustration for me is the fact that I’m a working mother out of financial necessity, so “climbing the ladder” would mean more time away from my daughter. However, I really like graphic design and I do feel motivated to learn everything I can about it and become a better graphic designer, though as an introvert I’m not crazy about moving into management or anything like that. I guess I’m kind of like your friend the computer programmer.

I’m also very lucky that my company is very family-friendly, and there are other moms there who work part-time. My husband and I have been diligently working towards being able to afford to have me work part-time instead of full-time, at which point we’ll probably have another baby. I’d quit altogether if I could and be an SAHM, but that probably won’t be possible for awhile. Anyway, that’s kind of off-topic, but being a working mother does make one even more reluctant to climb the ladder. At least for me – some people seem to find it “fulfilling,” which I don’t really understand. I mean, I like my job, but I could quit tomorrow and not miss it too much.

SteveG said...

I am with Zippy on this one.

My own experience at several large companies over the past 2 decades, while admittedly anecdotal, is right in line with how he's described things.

I am actually presently in the midst of a job change for this very reason.

My previous managers were trying to force me to move into management (I’d been identified as ‘talented’), even though I'd clearly expressed no interest in such a move, and had explained that I did not find the work or supervisory aspect of the next levels appealing.

The biggest problem in reality is that the next level up for me requires that I must be willing to put the job first. I’ve both seen, and have had various managers over the years admit to me, that the next level is the beginning of being required to take on significantly more work and more hours.

They were unrelenting over a 9 month period, and it culminating in my having to leave a position that I’d invested tons of sweat and effort in, which I generally found very satisfying, in which I’d been key in making one of the companies largest systems successful, in which the company was making money off of me , etc., etc. all in order to avoid having significantly more work forced on me.

Maybe I am just lazy and don’t want to work hard? Possible, but since they had to replace me in my old position with three people to do the work I’d been doing (remember, they were trying to pile more on me, and to ‘develop’ me to be able to do even more later-after promotion), that doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

The productivity gains do come in part from more efficient processes, but they also come in large part by asking people to do more and more with less. That’s flat reality in corporate America today.

Again, this is all admittedly anecdotal, but I’ve seen it play out again, and again, and again, and again over the past 15+ years, across both mid sized and very large corporations, over two different geographic regions, and across two different industries. I’ve rarely seen anything different than what Zippy described.

And the problem is typically not in the place where your analogy indicates. The new employee is typically not the one dealing with this. The problem comes up in the middle of one’s career.

At the point when you do have some significant value to the company, but the company wants to ‘squeeze’ even more out of the person…and it can be dehumanizing.

Also with regard to the analogy you’ve given…it actually seems to me to illustrate Zippy’s point fairly well.

First, of course it’s not dehumanizing to ‘invite’ the young man to move up, to develop, to become more invested in the company. That’s quite a compliment.

But at the point where he expresses no interest in that, but is badgered nonetheless, and ultimately threatened with being fired (despite being a valuable employee) is when it becomes dehumanizing.

What the analogy admits at that point is that there never was an ‘invitation’ at the beginning…only the pretense of an invitation.

The employee never was going to have any choice in the matter.

I'd want to know at that point, had they made that very clear to him when they hired him? Did they even ask him about his long term plans in the interview.

If this concept is so important to them, I'd want to know what they did on their end during the hiring process to assess the fit of this individual with the company.

And yet, has the company really wronged him so very much, or is his manager rightly frustrated at the young man's complete lack of interest in becoming a more integral part of the company?

Why frustrated? That they have a solid, valuable employee?

What in the world should be frustrating about that?

Why MUST the person WANT to move up and be interested in the company in order to survive there?

That’s the whole point of this…that in much of corporate America, you have to WANT what the company wants you to want.

More often than not, you really have little choice. And again, at the point when you are compelled, it can be dehumanizing.

Is it perhaps a matter of the young man simply having selecting the wrong career?

Or of the company not having determined a proper fit or not having made clear its up or out policy during the hiring process, or a combination of all of the above?

And honestly, wouldn't most of us rather have the boss who asks us to move up and learn more about the company (like the one in the example) than one who insists that we remain in one place and doesn't want us moving up?

Sure…as you’ve presented it…the choice is clear. I don’t want a boss who ‘insists’ I remain in one place.

And certainly I want one who ASKS me to move up and learn more.

But I also want a boss who can respect my choice not to do so if that’s what I decide. That's the part I think you might have left out.

Darwin said...

Good points Sarah and Steve.

Certainly, I'd say that there are a number of types of career which do not lend themselves to moving up or moving about, because the nature of improvement there is centered around doing the same thing better, or simply continuing to provide a single much-needed thing.

Pressuring teachers to move into administration or engineers and programmers to move into management in order to get ahead strikes me as clearly wrong-headed. It represents a failure to understand that in many fields having many years of experience in your specific vocation is itself a huge advantage in allowing you to do better work with less effort.

So one of the reasons that I picked my duck example was to attempt to capture an example of a job (and it seems to me that there are plenty in that category) where a certain degree of dilligence is needed, but years of experience don't really change the quality of your work at all. In that case, you either become a permanent cog if you don't move on (and take up space that could otherwise go to someone who actually had an interest about learning about the company and moving up within it) or after a while you move on to something else in the company.

But I guess that I'm taking it as a given that for a lot of types of rolls in a lot of companies, it is essentially and expectation inherent in the job that once you learn this particular facet of the business really well, you'll move on and learn another one while making room for someone else to come in and fill your old place. Perhaps that's overly influenced both by the fact that I'm generally interested in how companies work, and so I like moving around every so often (and get bored once I've got my current role so well in line that it only takes half my attention) and also by the experience of having worked for a while at a very small company in which each person had his or her place and you were never, ever able to move on to anything else.

Literacy-chic said...

Say a company makes rubber ducks. An earnest young man comes to work for them, and he starts in the factory, inspecting ducks as they come out of the molds and making sure that they are correctly formed. He does well, comes in on time, and is seen as a valuable employee. So after a year, his boss comes to our character and tells him, "You seem like a solid and promising employee. I'd like to see you learn more about the business and move up in the company. You should consider moving up to either running the molding and extruding machinery or overseeing the duck painting. Which interests you?"

Actually, Darwin, the ducks were made in China...

And I'm an academic, so I get to talk about "publish or perish" instead. That is, if I get a job.