Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ambition? Or All In?

Last time we were pretty hard on managers (see Stupid Management Tricks). This time we will change our focus to the reasons why managers do what they do. We are not intentionally trying to be hard on managers again, though it may seem that way. We are saying that their behavior is understandable given the logic of their psychology and the imperative forces that drive them.

The primary characteristic of managers in general is personal ambition. The stronger your desire to get ahead, the better chance you have of getting ahead. Take for example Eike Batista, the Brazilian entrepreneur who built a multi-billion-dollar commodities empire over a few years starting in 2006. According to an article in the online Wall Street Journal (see Eike Batista's Empire), Mr Batista wants to be the world's richest man. Brian Gibson, "then a senior vice president with Ontario's Teacher Retirement Plan," is quoted as saying

"As an investor, you are looking for someone who is hungry. I didn't know if he was going to be the richest or not, and I didn't care."

We are speaking more of attitude than actual behavior here, but you have to be willing to give your "betters" the impression that you are "hungry" enough to do anything in order to get ahead. You must create the perception that on command, you would steal candy from babies. That you would steal candy from your own baby. If you are not willing to compromise your integrity in order to get ahead, then you will not likely rise very far in a management hierarchy.

Second, managers are joiners, joiners who plan to be invited into ever-more-exclusive socioeconomic strata, level by level. They are never fully in one stratum—never fully on one rung of the ladder—because no sooner do they reach a level than they begin reaching for the next one. The logic of "getting ahead in the world" requires it.

This means that they also have to leave any baggage behind that might tie them down to a lower level. Any inconvenient friendships, love relationships, or business relationships must be terminated quite deliberately. In part that is because they must be seen by the current occupants of the next-higher level as someone who can help them achieve their ambitions. You cannot do that if you have tied yourself down. This need to cut bonds and betray promises that are no longer useful is what we mean we say that managers are professionally faithless. There are those who are "in" and those who are "out," and managers must always work to be "in."

Finally, the more that managers invest in climbing the ladder, the longer they have been climbing, and the higher they climb, the more vulnerable they are to the threat of losing their places. Thus the process of climbing the ladder is generally also a process of increasing anxiety and fear. Not that managers can often display these things openly. Look for the anxiety and the fear in their underlings instead. They are very unusual managers who can control their own anger and keep from inflicting it on those who report to them. Think Donald Trump's famous line "You're fired!" from NBC's reality TV show, The Apprentice.

All this affects the rest of us because the workplace can be one long personality test to see if you have what it takes to become and succeed as a manager. How far will you go to be accepted? How glib are you and how well can you lie? How high a personal price are you willing to pay in your other commitments and your personal life to succeed at work? This gives rise to bragging and one-upmanship about how many hours one works every week. Another way to brag is to mope about how you had to miss your daughter's birthday party because of some urgent task at work. Of course, it is often hard to tell whether these claims are lies, especially in a wider culture that has the unspoken rule that if you accept my lies, I will accept yours.

The main point is this, however. If we train ourselves to accept lies unchallenged, how will we keep any hold on reality? If we train managers to be liars and betrayers, how will they manage us? If they are the ones who will lead our society, where will they lead us? Beyond Friedrich Hayek's chapter "Why the Worst Get on Top" in his book The Road to Serfdom, are we training those who are on their way to the top to do their worst?

The recent economic crisis tells us that indeed, they are doing their worst. The unwritten economic contract between workers and leaders in the US is broken, the one that says that economic security for the workers will improve as economic security for the rich and their minions improves. Instead we find that economic security for the workers is only a bit better than it was during the Great Depression. At the same time, the rich in comparison have almost perfect security, as do their favorite minions. The workers have less and less stake in the system. It will get harder and harder for them to support it if we let this trend go on.

However, no matter how badly we handle it, the management function is necessary and will not go away. Therefore we cannot solve the problems simply by getting rid of managers and expecting workers to self-organize. If not that, then what can we do?

First, we need to change our own attitudes. We are not "out" and the rich and their minions are not "in." We are all "in." We all deserve to be here and have jobs. Allowing ourselves to look down on those who cannot keep a job—feeling that we are "in" because we can keep a job—these are traps, lures by the rich to fool us into supporting their system against our own interests.

Another thing we can do is take the worst economic whips out of management hands. Yes, managers should have signficant control of worker incomes so they can use incentives, but they should not have any control of our livelihoods in the sense of necessities. Using the "carrot and stick" metaphor, managers should only be allowed to use carrots, not sticks. Then they would have to lead rather than rule. We need better leaders in this country.

Finally, we can put government back on the side of the people. US government income is controlled by the rich and their managers, not the workers. Therefore it is only natural that the US government favors the rich over the people. We can stop that by separating the rich out into their own markets and currencies. If the US government operates on an internal currency (or currencies) used only by the workers, then the interests of the government and the people will once again be aligned.

The way capitalism should be.

Socialism for the socialists and capitalism for the capitalists.

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