The Containers Of The Past
Rishad Tobaccowala | Why is Productivity Falling? | Factoids | Elsewhere | Meritocracy
Quote of the Moment
The future does not fit in the containers of the past.
| Rishad Tobaccowala
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Why is Productivity Falling?
Via Make Work Better, we learn that Zeynep Ton, an MIT professor of operations, has strong opinions about the current decline in productivity in American business. Unlike many others, she has data to back her opinions:
If you want to understand why productivity is falling, we need to look first at high levels of employee turnover. If we want to solve productivity issues the first step needs to be to lower the resignation rate.
We all know well when people quit their jobs a period of unproductivity commences: bosses and colleagues need to cover the work of the person leaving, the recruitment process takes unproductive attention and new starters take months to ramp up. As Ton says, ‘high employee turnover is ruinous for productivity’.
And the leading cause of workers quitting is… bad bosses.
Cloey Callahan reports on Meeting Equity:
Technology company Barco found in its meeting equity report that 80% of people believe tech can improve meetings. Additionally, one in three workers struggle to feel heard during hybrid meetings and one in four workers find it difficult to speak up. The report revealed that 56% of workers said meeting leaders focus too heavily on those who are physically present in the meeting room.
Make it a rule for everyone to speak on matters that impact all in the group.
Nick Bloom charts the slowing convergence of employers and employees around working from home:
The gap between what employees want and what employers offer on WFH is closing, but not closed. On average employees want about 3 days WFH a week while employers are offering 2.5 days. Given this gap, offering generous WFH is still an effective recruitment and retention policy.
In the 101 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005, just 28 percent of speaking characters were female. | Chris Colin, citing the work of Geena Davis.
Theodore Kinni provides a thoughtful review of The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, colleagues that have worked together for decades. Maslach created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the first and leading burnout assessment, in 1981. I wrote about burnout at length in Deep Pajamaville, citing her work.
If you want to get a rise out of Maslach and Leiter, take the approach to addressing burnout that most companies follow: pin it to the individual experiencing it, and try to fix the person. The authors call this the “medicalization of burnout,” even though, they add, “there is no comprehensive body of evidence to support the idea that burnout is a disease.”
Instead, Maslach and Leiter argue that a worker experiencing burnout is akin to a canary in a coal mine. “Like the canary, a person experiencing burnout could be considered a harbinger, a sensor sounding an early warning that something is going wrong more generally,” write the authors. “To resolve problems of burnout, we must heed the canary’s distress and investigate, with both the mine and the canary in mind.”
Charles Conn and Robert McLean offer some help for dealing with difficult problems in Six problem-solving mindsets for very uncertain times.
Re: the primacy of curiosity:
One simple suggestion from author and economist Caroline Webb to generate more curiosity in team problem solving is to put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This small artifice is surprisingly powerful: it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence. We also like thesis/antithesis, or red team/blue team, sessions, in which you divide a group into opposing teams that argue against the early answers—typically, more traditional conclusions that are more likely to come from a conventional pattern. Why is this solution better? Why not that one? We’ve found that better results come from embracing uncertainty. Curiosity is the engine of creativity.
Turning a hypothesis into a question underscores the indeterminacy of the questioning. This relates to Daniel Kahneman’s notion of delaying a decision until the time is right, to keep the mind open to new information.
The Emergent, Permissionless Organization | Stowe Boyd
Emergent organizations are where decision-making is distributed and innovation is innocent until proven guilty. Will today's leaders embrace this shift or succumb to the fear of perceived chaos?
The Lies of Meritocracy
Debra Myerson, in her book Rocking the Boat, debunks the premise of meritocracy:
The story of meritocracy in U.S. culture is a dominant narrative that provides ready explanations for who gets ahead in organizations, who doesn’t, and why. The accepted story is “people who try hard and have the capability will get ahead.” The converse is, of course, implicit: “Those who don’t get ahead must not be as able or hard working as those who do.” The story of meritocracy justifies a wide range of existing organizational arrangements, including organizational hiring, evaluation, and promotion systems, but it is so institutionalized within U.S. culture that its truthfulness is rarely acknowledged or challenged.
Let’s just look at the numbers from just one element of the American system of meritocratic achievement: gaining access to the most elite universities. As Rob Graham explains, while a case can be made that, yes, those that get in ‘earn’ their place:
Yes, elites do earn their place. But they do so in a context of heavy parental investment, making it exceedingly hard for non-wealthy people to compete.
Graham cites Michael Sandel with some stats:
More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.
At the most prestigious schools, there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country.
If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).
Note that this concentration of the children of the elite in the production of the elite was not the case in the era following world war two. Again, Graham:
In the years immediately after World War II, America experienced an explosion of people enrolling in higher education. Elite colleges and universities went through a transformation. Before the explosion, the sons of the wealthy were ensured a place at an Ivy League school. Afterward, they had to compete with hungry, talented working-class and ethnic whites. The Polish or Jewish immigrant could compete with the Boston Brahmin for a spot at Harvard. This was meritocracy (for white people, that is).
But by 1980, there was a retrenchment of class privilege. Elite schools became hyper selective. Gaining entry required investment in prep schools, SAT courses and extracurricular activities. Moreover, the highest paying jobs—particularly in law and finance—began to recruit exclusively from these schools. Accordingly, wealthy parents now spend heavily on their children's education, thereby ensuring their class position.
So, what once was true, is now a shadowy myth. Myths, as Graham notes, bind a society together, by transmitting a set of values. But when the myth is deeply untrue, all bets are off.
If our leaders — both in politics and business — promote the broken myth as if it were reality, our society fails in several parallel ways. First, we point to the myth of meritocracy, and use it to justify structural inequalities, since after all those who have not achieved simply didn’t work hard enough. This is true in the economic realm and in the politics of business advancement. Second, buying into the myth blocks reconsideration of policies that might counter inequality, and return us to the post-WWII heyday of actual meritocracy.
As Daniel Markovitz puts it,
Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.
Even the elites are harmed by the ‘meritocratic’ system, he contends.
Elite students desperately fear failure and crave the conventional markers of success, even as they see through and publicly deride mere “gold stars” and “shiny things.” Elite workers, for their part, find it harder and harder to pursue genuine passions or gain meaning through their work. Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.
The only solution, he argues, is to break education open:
How can that be done? For one thing, education—whose benefits are concentrated in the extravagantly trained children of rich parents—must become open and inclusive. Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.
And in the world of business, systemic changes are needed, as well:
A parallel policy agenda must reform work, by favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors. The legal system should deploy “legal technicians”—not all of whom would need to have a J.D.—to manage routine matters, such as real-estate transactions, simple wills, and even uncontested divorces. In finance, regulations that limit exotic financial engineering and favor small local and regional banks can shift jobs to mid-skilled workers. And management should embrace practices that distribute control beyond the C-suite, to empower everyone else in the firm.
The New Deal of the 1930s and the post-WWII expansion of education under the GI Bill ushered in the flowering of the American middle class, and ‘a labor market that promoted economic equality over hierarchy’.
We did it once, and we may be able to do it again. But it will likely take something as huge as the New Deal to make a break with the past.
The lessons of history, however, point in the other direction, since political scientists reveal that in almost every case this level of inequality will lead to societal collapse: forcefully wrenched apart by revolution (France and Russia) or military conquest (Rome).
And, at the present time, the stranglehold of meritocracy is growing tighter.