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So, a while back, a friend said that she was having a tough time at work, and I responded:
I'm pretty sure that most people's relationship to work is an abusive one. Things like "work doesn't like it if I go out, so I can't be friends with you any more" and "work was bad for a long time, but yesterday it was good, so I think it's changed and we've made progress in our relationship" and "it's not work, it's me" and "if I just loved work more and was better then it wouldn't be so mean to me" etc.
I have since then gotten more people than I am comfortable with privately telling me that my analogy is exactly accurate.

Yowza. This sucks, and is indicative of an epidemic. But why is it true? Is it because we are all working for someone other than ourselves, and that the feedback loops are screwed up? As John Allen Paulos notes, regression to the mean implies that after being praised for a good job we will probably do worse, and after being punished for a bad job we will do better. Does this mean that every innumerate organization that tries to manage people will tend to punish but not praise, because punishment is proven to work, while praise merely allows people to fail?

Or is it something deeper? Is it because, among most of the people I know, the whole food/shelter/survival thing is taken care of, and so we've moved to a higher level in the hierarchy of needs, but the tools we used to just blow right past level 2 actively work against us getting through 3 and 4 up to 5? Work doesn't seem to inspire community, love, or self-esteem among its participants, as a matter of fact, it seems to do just the opposite. In many workplaces you will find people who harbor tiny petty grudges and nurse them throughout the day as they semi-diligently work at a job they hate and then their boss tells them that their most recent work was crap.

It doesn't have to be that way. It seems like modern "scientific management" techniques that MBAs are taught generally stem from a need to raise the floor and make sure everyone is doing a part. If we let people be self-motivated and let them do their own thing (which they nominally do as members of modern society, but this whole abusive relationship thing gets in the way) then I'm pretty sure the slackers will completely slack, but the motivated people will produce more than you previously imagined. I wonder if the area under the curve will go up or down? In computer stuff, the area under the curve seems to go up - see Google, etc.. In tax-form processing, it might go down. Because who the hell gives a damn about tax-form processing?

I like to hope that the human psyche is such that, if people are free, they will do better. Then all that is required to turn this situation around is for organizations to give their employees maximum freedom, not turn into fascists internally, and watch their competitors lose. Whole Foods seems to have adopted this approach, and Visa apparently used to be this way as well. I do wonder, however. Is the problem that people who are in a screwed up situation still do okay work, because they are still striving for self-esteem even though they are in an environment working against that? In my copious spare time, perhaps I should check out D.L. Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” pp. 205-213 in Ronald Weitzer, ed., Deviance and Social Control.. I looked on the web for what I thought was a [livejournal.com profile] craig_r_meyer quote that went something like "there's nothing okay with being sane in a fucked up environment", but I only found that article referenced again and again.

Is your work abusive? How? Why are you still there? Can you even imagine a non-abusive work situation? All these questions are serious. When so many intelligent people I respect tell that my analogy is right, it seems like something has gone deeply wrong. What is it, and how can it be fixed? Your thoughts, please.

--UPDATE, after reading "On Being Sane in Insane Places"--
The link is unfortunately not particularly relevant to this whole screed. The only possible thing of interest is the fact that all the inmates could tell when people were actually sane. And I do recall meeting people whose attitude towards works was one of pride about their work, but a detachment WRT their environment and they seemed to have exactly found the Zen of caring and not caring that would allow them to leave a sinking ship. I recall being almost shocked at their attitudes, in part because the sort of fealty and loyalty I had always associated with being a "good worker" was completely not present. They were proud of their work, friendly to their colleagues, but their well-being was NOT inextricably linked to the organization's. And I could pick out who these people were VERY quickly. Perhaps those people truly were sane in an insane place.

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October 2009

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