Posted by: Alex | April 24, 2010

Happiness and the corporate You, Inc.

This is an impossible subject to tackle in a single blog post, but allow me the indulgence to relate some of my thoughts as I’ve been reflecting during my time off.  As I indicated in my initial post, a large part of taking this break is to come to peace with myself by moving into an entirely different environment, doing something I enjoy, and having time to reflect.  In particular, I attribute the single most significant reason for taking this long break to the culture imposed by my former employer, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the implications.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve caught myself a number of times reacting in a paranoid fashion to people’s basic intentions.  Something I used to do all the time at work, I was disappointed to realize that some of that behavior had transferred to my basic interactions with people, particularly with anyone in even a basic position of power.  I’m being offered something: why?  What’s in it for them?  What does this person have to gain from me participating?  This may be a basic reflection of behavior in the competitive business world, but why should I be thinking about people outside of a corporate environment in this way?  The uneasy feeling I had on recognition that I was still reacting this way was evidence enough that there’s something intrinsically wrong with it.

I recently read a thought-provoking book by Douglas Rushkoff called “Life, Inc,” and it’s made some very interesting food for thought given the environment I just left.  In the introduction, he explains that the inspiration for the book was triggered when he was mugged in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood.  When he posted his experience on the Park Slope Parents list online, the first two responses were angry residents up in arms that he had revealed the street the crime occurred on.  By revealing the street, they argued that their property values were being put at risk.  So not only did the subprime debacle upend our economy, but what was this event saying about the state of our basic social values?  Since when did the price of your home become more important than preventing crime in the same neighborhood?

Rushkoff’s central thesis is that we shouldn’t be taking the construct of our economy as the way things are supposed to be, but rather that the modern economy reflects the values of corporations, and that our personal behavior is increasingly, and to our social detriment, becoming more like that of corporations.  The modern economy is after all a human-invented concept with its own rules, biases and incentives that don’t necessarily work to benefit you and I as non-corporate human beings.  A radical argument no doubt, and I don’t agree with all of Rushkoff’s conclusions, but a large number of his observations struck a chord with me based on my own experience.

Think about how just about everything around you is measured on a pure economic basis.  Success, and by implication, your happiness, is determined by how rich you are.  The guy in the gated community that has a Porsche as his second car and is an officer at a Fortune 100 company must have “made it”, yet the couple that earns enough money to pay the bills but afford few luxuries must be miserable.  The country with the greatest GDP per capita is the most successful in economic terms and therefore its citizens must be happiest.  Yet study after study, and if we’re honest with ourselves, our own basic experience, shows that above a certain level of basic affluence, increased economic success has increasingly diminished returns on people’s level of happiness.  Once our basic needs are met, money has little to do with how satisfied we are with our lives.  This may seem obvious, but if it’s true, then why do get-rich-quick schemes circulate regularly and attract throngs of countless hopefuls?  Particularly in a country like the United States which is supposedly the most affluent in the world?

Today at lunch I was surprised to notice someone reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” in this rural part of New Zealand.  It’s written by an American self-made millionaire turned motivational speaker, and in essence the book communicates the basics of how our economy is structured, some basic accounting principles, and the “secret” to becoming rich.  Once the author has you accepting his paradigm, he explains what you can do to maximize your piece of the pie.  It’s an inspirational read, one that teaches some financial management fundamentals and has you recognize the intrinsic difference between employee and business owner.  The irony is that the book ultimately simply encourages the competitive, everyone-for-themselves rat race that had you pick up the book in the first place.

Thinking back to my former employer, they understood the rat race perfectly.  The motivational tools management invariably used involved either the realization or illusion of two things: career advancement and money.  A strong culture of fear was perpetuated from the top down by making sure that every single employee knew they were expendable, and a “need to know” currency for information further helped the company’s management maintain their mystique and power.  The end result was an effective method for exerting control and extracting either hard work or a compromise of personal values or freedom by appealing to the idea of becoming richer or getting ahead compared to your coworkers.  If you didn’t buy into the culture, you were out.  You can almost credit them for achieving the epitome of what it means to be in business, with everything dialed to the extreme of maximizing revenue at any cost, just as you would extract ore from a mine.

The sad truth is that it works, but not indefinitely.  When customers were lied to in order to close a sale, you felt a sense of guilt, but you were also keenly aware of being protected by the corporate culture and that your behavior was condoned even if management maintained plausible deniability.  You were promised rewards, your share of the pie, for things that your primary school teacher taught you were wrong, as long as it got the sale done.  Those promised rewards were often elusive, and it might have felt good to rebel initially, but eventually the guilt catches up to you.  After all, customers are not faceless, robotic entities, but other human beings.

The culture that a corporation creates is very sticky and difficult to change.  It’s a self-reinforcing phenomenon with those that fit being promoted, and those that disagree ultimately leaving.  On top of this, with a certain amount of historical success, culture change is also a business risk.  As an employee part of a business culture, it’s almost impossible to speak up about things that are morally or ethically wrong, particularly if they come down from the top.  Who is the Chairman and CEO held accountable to?  Would the shareholders even care as long as returns are maintained?  The only reason you are beholden to the corporation is because they are paying you.  The fear that you will lose you job and income, which supports you, your family, relatives, and lifestyle is what keeps you quiet, compliant, complicit.  Even the legal system is biased against you.  People fear speaking up against corporations because your individual resources simply can’t stack up to a company whose reputation, revenue and shareholders’ investments are at stake.

Is it any real surprise that so-called “white-collar” crime is so common?  When the stakes for personal gain are so high, it’s no wonder that business leaders are often tempted to cut corners, steal, lie, and cheat.  Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why there aren’t more high-profile white collar criminal cases.  Somehow we’ve let ourselves accept with little complaint that people at the top of a corporation can earn hundreds of times more than someone at the bottom of the corporation.  A company’s leader should be paid more to compensate for additional responsibility, stress, and experience, but with top CEOs’ total remuneration rising to tens of millions of dollars versus $20,000 a year for a minimum wage employee, the implication is that the CEO is doing the work of 500 minimum wage employees.  No matter your position on the matter, these kinds of multiples are hard to justify, particularly as you compound the difference over years of income and tax benefits.

I’m not anti-business, and I don’t think that we should go back to a hunter-gatherer society, nor should we all become communists, but in doing business we should remember that as human beings we are social creatures and that there are values more important than next quarter’s revenue and the pursuit of personal wealth beyond need or reason.  Since the vast majority of us are employees and not business owners, instead of sweating blood for the man, ask yourself this: wouldn’t it be infinitely more satisfying to feel like you were an important part of the team, that your financial prospects as an employee were not orders of magnitude removed from the company’s leadership, and that customers genuinely enjoyed interacting with your company?

Pause for a moment and think about what moments in life have genuinely made you happiest.  Was it the moment your boss handed you the largest bonus check of your career?  The day you purchased the prized item you’d been saving up for for months?  Or was it the moment where you recognized that particular combined expression of surprise, joy, and gratitude on someone’s face when you gave them something that even they didn’t know they needed or wanted?  The satisfaction felt when a student, son or daughter graduated and thanked you for the significant role you played in achieving their goal?  Ask yourself which of these events had a greater and longer-lasting impact on those around you.

There is more to creating value than selling a product, generating revenue, and making your investors rich.  There are no scales that directly measure how happy your employees are or the respect your customers have for your company, but as human beings we know that a happy workforce is more motivated and productive and that this positive energy has a multiplicative effect beyond the water cooler to customers’ attitudes and to the things they tell their friends and coworkers.  This kind of value simultaneously transcends and magnifies economically measured results with human-scaled social agency.  Simply because it can’t be measured on a balance sheet or income statement doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.

Particularly in today’s culture of instant gratification and allure of overnight riches at any cost, building the kind of organization that generates and sustains both human and economic value may sound easier said than done.  Ultimately, pure economic forces favor a competitive, selfish, harsh take-no-prisoners approach where maximization of profit is the only goal, but we know that it’s possible to focus on more than the bottom line.  There are some well-known examples, such as Kiva.org, where both employees and end users can feel good about helping others and creating long-lasting, broad social and economic value.

There are many local examples, too, of small businesses that are a pleasure to deal with because their employees are treated with respect, their products are of high quality, and they go the extra mile to treat you like an extended member of their family.  Californians have the perfect example: compare employee morale and customer service at In-N-Out Burger versus McDonald’s.  I never fail to be amazed by the enthusiasm In-N-Out employees show for their work, and it’s no surprise that they’ve been so successful — the food is great, the price is right, and you feel energized just interacting with the employees.  No doubt you can think of your own local examples.

Things appear similar in New Zealand, but the differences are subtle.  Even in the small social circle I’ve been exposed to so far, I’ve seen competitiveness and greed, but life is a little more relaxed, more open and trusting.  Barely a day after arriving, hardly knowing anything about me, my hosts had me house sit for a few days to look after their animals.  For the past month I’ve been living in staff housing that is currently open in the off-season in exchange for some very basic help around the airfield and house sitting over the winter.  They run a successful business, and surely could demand money instead, but think about the social value that is being built.  There’s an endlessly multiplying effect to a few simple acts, and we all know this instinctively, yet the companies that most of us work for have no incentive to do anything that can’t be measured economically.  We end up compromising our basic values in the name of business and financial gain.

Kiwis are proud that they consider their quality of life to be higher than most other Western countries, but no official (economic) statistics reflect this of course.  What New Zealanders seem to innately understand better than most of us is that a certain amount of money buys you the freedom of choice, but beyond that point wealth has relatively little to offer, and the returns that create happiness are those that are social, rather than individualistic and purely economically motivated.  I’ve seen this in my daily interactions with people in different capacities, and various aspects of the government reflect a similar mentality.

Sadly, as I’ve noticed in many countries, people observe American affluence through both personal experience and, in particular, American-exported television and cinematic media, and they covet the same for themselves.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a six-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool and multiple cars?  The corporate machine is remarkably effective on a worldwide scale, but it rarely reveals the full picture and lacks in the substance that after all makes us human.


Responses

  1. Well said, Alex. Not sure I’ve ever read such a succinct explanation of the culture at our mutual-former employer. The entire post was very enjoyable, but those middle two paragraphs certainly hit home with me. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I was given ultimatums, threats or simply bribed with financial remuneration in order to cajole me into their prescribed endgame. The brief high one gets from the “big check” hitting your bank account can carry you through a few quarters, or even a few years, but it eventually gets old and you yearn for a higher purpose…or a less muddled one. It is very rare (if ever) that I speak to a former employee of that company (irrespective of whether they left voluntarily or were asked to leave) who doesn’t speak poorly of their experience there or rave about how much more they are enjoying their personal and professional life now that they have moved on. It is the company that succeeds despite itself.

    Again, a great post. Hope you are having a blast.

    Cheers,
    Jay

  2. […] It’s a newish blog – started in February. Posts so far cover his/her plans, journey to New Zealand, first impressions, an insight into gliding and the latest post is on happiness and the corporate you. […]

  3. *Sigh* That sounds about right.


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