Playoffs and rocking chairs

The big game is tonight, the college football national championship.

No, I don't mean the contest between Oregon and Auburn for the chance to declare themselves "national champions" without ever facing undefeated TCU. I mean the bona fide championship game for I-AA in which the University of Delaware's Fighting Blue Hens and the Eastern Washington Eagles face off as the only two teams left standing after battling through weeks of actual playoffs.

So tonight, since it's the last game of the year and win or lose there won't be another one, I'll be cheering for the Hens.

Here's a not-so-secret dirty little secret of newspapers: We don't usually root, root, root for the home team. The newspaper I work for covers Philadelphia sports, and lately that's meant a lot of extra work covering playoff games. We had to cover the Phillies for weeks after anybody at The Washington Post had to worry about covering a Nationals game. We had to cover the Eagles after those folks at the Post were all done with the Redskins. Even the Flyers, somehow, managed to keep us working for weeks after their Capitals reporter had started his postseason vacation. Only the 76ers seem to have any respect for the idea of ending their season when the regular season ends.

Now here we are, in January, still having to cover college football even though there are only four teams in the whole country still playing. Just because those Blue Hens annoyingly kept winning. If they hadn't recovered that fumble against Georgia Southern a couple of weeks ago, my Friday night at work would be looking a whole lot easier just now.

It may sound like simple laziness to complain about covering playoff games, but it's actually a rational response to the incentives designed and created by management in our industry. And not just our industry, but pretty much all of corporate America. Throughout corporate America, management has decided to uncouple productivity and income — to sever the link between the two. They have decided, in their wisdom, to stop rewarding productivity.

Over the past three decades, productivity per worker has soared while income has stagnated or even gone down. Productivity won't get you a raise. It may not even let you keep your job. So if working harder and doing more means less pay or, at best, no difference in pay, then why should anyone want to work harder? Or, more to the point, on what rational basis could top managers expect their workers to do more for the same reward? Why should those managers rationally expect their workers not to respond rationally to the incentives they have created?

Let me take you back to the fall of 2008. Our paper was covering both a World Series and a presidential election, two huge national stories with local angles. The Phillies were on a roll and Joe Biden was on his way to being the first Delawarean on a winning national ticket.

We worked really hard and we covered both stories really well. As a result, we sold more papers — and more advertising — than we ever imagined we could. Hard work and quality work and two big stories meant big sales and big revenues and big profits.

But we were still only one paper in a huge national chain. And come January that chain announced massive layoffs. As a consequence, we will never cover another story as well as we could in 2008. The word from on high was clear: quality and increased sales will be rewarded exactly the same as their opposites. The link between productivity and income no longer exists.

The fracturing of the connection between productivity and income is bad for business. It incentivizes an avoidance of extra work and of top-quality work. It rewards this avoidance — expects it, designs it, plans for it, creates, engenders, requires and demands it. When the connection between productivity and income is broken, the CEO might as well send a memo to every employer reading: "Please do not work very hard and make sure you never do your very best work. I want lazy, shoddy and just-barely acceptable output from all of you." Their intent could not be made any clearer or more explicit.

The remarkable and astonishing thing — at my paper, in my industry and across the board in the American economy — is that so many millions of workers have continued to work their hardest and to do their best despite every incentive not to. Those workers continue to do the very best they can despite their employers all-but ordering them to reject care and craft and concern for their customers. They have continued to do such work because care, craft, customer and character still seem to matter to them more than any memo from the CEO's office — explicit or implicit.

Some lady working on the assembly line at the Acme Rocking Chair Co. hasn't seen a raise in eight years and her boss keeps telling her that she's got to increase the product-units-per-hour beyond all reasonable expectation of quality. Every incentive, every instruction Acme Rocking Chair is giving her demands that she lower her standards for quality and accept that it is now her job to crank out crappy chairs.

But somehow she has got it in her head that she doesn't really work for the Acme Rocking Chair Co. The way she thinks of it, she works for the person who will one day sit in that chair she's making. And unlike the Acme Rocking Chair Co., that person has never treated her badly. It strikes her as wrong somehow — morally wrong — to provide a crappy chair for that person.

So she works twice as hard for the same pay and bites her lip. And whenever she gets another memo from Mr. Acme informing her that product-units-per-hour must yet again be increased, she thinks, "Screw you — I'm going to keep making good chairs, the best chairs I can, no matter what you tell me, you dim-witted, overpaid moron." And exactly that — her perverse, rebellious commitment to doing good work as a way of doing justice for the customer and simultaneously flipping off the bosses — that's pretty much all that's keeping corporate America afloat.

I'm not sure that's sustainable.

Um, so anyway, Go Blue Hens!

  • Amaryllis

    Just because I feel like it, more Mr. Kaplan:

    “Mitout newspapers vat vould ve humans be?” Mr. Kaplan paused dramatically. “Ha! Sawages ve vould be, dat’s vat! Ignorance ve vould fill, dat’s all. No fects! No knolledge! No aducation!” A shudder passed through the body scholastic at the mere thought of such a barbaric state.
    -Leo Rosten

    …and no, TV news is not at all the same. And on-line news doesn’t quite fill the gaps, either.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    @Nick

    So, it’s the 20th century and the guy who looks after the horses can’t understand it. Sure, there’s this new-fangled “automobile”. But his team does a great job of looking after those horses. Why did they just cut 40% of his team? And they say there may have to be a pay cut. It’s insane, isn’t it? But that’s how it goes. Newspapers are dying. I wish I had something optimistic to say to Fred about that, after all Fred isn’t a bad person and it seems he isn’t adapting very well to the world where Newspapers are obsolete. But I don’t have anything.

    Newspapers being “obsolete” in your belief didn’t stop Fred and his colleagues from beating newspaper and advertising sales targets. His point is that this is happening in a lot of industries, regardless of whether or not you think they’re obsolete — productivity is not rewarded.

  • Hartti

    So she works twice as hard for the same pay and bites her lip. And whenever she gets another memo from Mr. Acme informing her that product-units-per-hour must yet again be increased, she thinks, “Screw you — I’m going to keep making good chairs, the best chairs I can, no matter what you tell me, you dim-witted, overpaid moron.” And exactly that — her perverse, rebellious commitment to doing good work as a way of doing justice for the customer and simultaneously flipping off the bosses — that’s pretty much all that’s keeping corporate America afloat.

    So what you’re saying is that the little old lady and people like her are what’s letting Corporate America get away with treating people like shit, thus making things worse for the rest of us?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ministerformagic Pius Thicknesse

    *stares*
    Not… sure… if… srs.
    I do believe the point you missed is over *there*.

  • Nick

    “didn’t stop Fred and his colleagues from beating newspaper and advertising sales targets”
    And if they’d put in the same effort but they didn’t beat the targets? You need to realise that these targets aren’t some external, rigidly fixed problem, like “eradicate orphan disease X” or “build a rocket that can hit London from the coast of Europe”, they’re arbitrary, set by a committee or even a lone manager based on some mix of finger in the wind guestimates and the way you fill out a lottery ticket. Even if they had been fixed problems, setting a goal doesn’t by itself make it either achievable or a good measure of your contribution.
    The “productivity is not rewarded” line is actually what the science tells us to expect if, having discovered that “productivity bonuses” don’t work, we simply stop giving them. In fact, this knowledge is so old that you get managers sending new employees on courses to go learn this stuff, remembering that their manager sent them. Often the irony is that somewhere along the way, the manager has since begun giving productivity bonuses. It feels like it ought to work, so even after they’ve been shown by example that it doesn’t…
    Yes, bonuses don’t work. Particularly for skilled workers. If you don’t come home tired from the back-breaking physical exertion of your work and numb from the tedium of it, I can pretty much guarantee that offering to pay you 10% extra for some arbitrary productivity goal won’t affect how hard you work. In fact it guarantees to make things worse. If you reward some employees but not others you create a divisive situation that’s bad for the whole company. If you reward no-one they all feel betrayed and productivity may get worse. If you reward everyone you’ve just set the expectation that this will continue regardless of future company fortunes, effectively a raise but with nasty politics.
    There are other things you can do that are stupider. Microsoft, for example, has a classic DIY productivity metric that they now can’t get rid of even though surely someone will have explained to their top management why it can’t work. They rate every employee on a curve. The people at the bottom of the curve are “underachieving” and so, when profits are down, those are the people you fire. The rest of the time they’re the people who get treated worst, least able to choose their assignments, and so on. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because treating people badly and forcing them to do jobs they don’t want is terrible for motivation. But before that, it’s crazy because it assumes that no matter who Microsoft hires, and who leaves, the same percentage of employees are no good. It actively denies its own premise, yet it looked good to someone who, no doubt, imagined themself permanently at the top of the arbitrary curve.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Let me get this straight, Nick. You’re reading what Fred wrote, most particularly these lines:

    “Productivity won’t get you a raise. It may not even let you keep your job. So if working harder and doing more means less pay or, at best, no difference in pay, then why should anyone want to work harder? Or, more to the point, on what rational basis could top managers expect their workers to do more for the same reward? Why should those managers rationally expect their workers not to respond rationally to the incentives they have created?”
    “The word from on high was clear: quality and increased sales will be rewarded exactly the same as their opposites. The link between productivity and income no longer exists.”
    “Some lady working on the assembly line at the Acme Rocking Chair Co. hasn’t seen a raise in eight years and her boss keeps telling her that she’s got to increase the product-units-per-hour beyond all reasonable expectation of quality. Every incentive, every instruction Acme Rocking Chair is giving her demands that she lower her standards for quality and accept that it is now her job to crank out crappy chairs.”

    After reading these lines, you appear to be saying, “Good! That’s the way it should be, because Science Says that rewarding productivity doesn’t produce an increase in productivity. Therefore, income and how effectively you work should have no relationship, and the amount you pay a worker should be the bare minimum necessary to keep attrition sufficiently low and applications for employment frequent enough that you can keep a sufficient number of workers in the company to meet your goals, and those workers should be given bullshit ‘incentives’ like being able to pick your own tasks one day a week* to keep them happy, rather than paying them in proportion to the value they bring to the company.”
    Am I reading you correctly? Because I want to make sure I’m not misunderstanding you.
    *Seriously, how is this an incentive for the vast majority of workers? When I go to work, there aren’t a dozen different things I can pick to do; there’s ONE. I get paid to do that one thing, and do it well. Keeping my job involves doing that one thing well enough to meet certain minimum performance metrics. Getting a bonus involves doing significantly better than that, to the extent of meeting certain other goals.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com/ Ross

    I’m not as clear as I used to be on why increasing productivity is, in and of itself, a worthwhile goal to have.
    The Big Boss at my company is incredibly fond of saying “If you don’t grow, you die,” and that’s the principal of our econony: if it doesn’t show growth eveyr quarter (and, indeed, it doesn’t show *ever increasing* growth), the economy will collapse and it’s soup lines and CEOs up against the wall and mad max and everything.
    But, well, how is life improved by making more rocking chairs this year than last year? In specific cases, sure. We could probably do with more food (Though the last time I learned aobut this, what we actually needed was not any more total food production, but for the food production to be more optimally distributed WRT places where people who like to not starve happen to live). But in general? Sometimes it feels like there’s an oroborous thing going on where we need to increase production not to meet demand, but just because we need to grow the economy. So that people will have more money. So that they can buy the extra stuff we produced in step 1. I think this was the theme of an anti-drug PSA in the 80s.
    We *chose* this, it’s not just the natual order of things. Back in the 60s, futurists all predicted that the 21st century man would work only 3 days a week, because automation would have lightened his burden. We *could do that*. But we chose not to. We decided that it was morally bankrupt to live that way. Instead, I work 40 hours a week (not even counting the non-billable time I spendon work-related stuff like filling out my time card, answering emails from the boss, and driving), am 100 times as productive as someone in my job 20 years ago, but only make about 4 times as much money 0– and I’m one of the folks doing really well out of the system. Your typical blue collar worker is dozens of times as productivem but is making *the same or less*.
    And it’s fun and easy to blame ridiculous CEO bonuses, but I think it’s to a point where even those don’t explain it; if the CEO makes 900 times as much as his workers, but *each* worker is 100 times as productive, if he’s got more than 9 workers, then some of that productivity *isn’t going to either of them*. It’s just feeding the beast of the market.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/fearlessson FearlessSon

    I saw this link earlier today thanks to Wil Wheaton, and I thought it seemed apropo:
    How Pixar Bosses Saved Their Employees From Layoffs
    Though it does bring up another thought. Howcome when shareholders start demanding layoffs (the idiots) it is mostly people at the bottom and middle of the ladder who are the first to go? One would think that getting rid of people at the top would have the best budget-savings to headcount-perserving ratio. Or at least, one would think that executives would be some of the first willing to cut their own salaries and forego their bonuses to keep headcounts up. Such actions, communicated properly, could inspire great loyalty and motivation in those under them.

  • Nick

    No, Andrew, I suggest reading what I wrote, not what you want me to have written.
    There actually are jobs like Andrew describes. Unskilled labour, doing exactly one thing, over and over, until you die, retire, get a better job or the job ceases to exist. But there actually aren’t that many. A century ago there were a lot more. A century from now there may be none at all.
    But I don’t think Andrew has one of those jobs, it’s more likely Andrew just _thinks_ his job consists of “one thing” and really it’s quite complicated and multifaceted. He’s persuaded himself that it’s duller than it is, which is an odd sort of thing to do to yourself, but that’s how some people are.
    Very likely Andrew believes he is good at his job. That he ought to get some identifiable and preferably financial reward for being so much better than other people. He might be surprised that _most_ people feel they’re better than others at their job. And sadly, if you rewarded some other employees but not him, he’d be boiling with rage at the (to him obvious) slight.
    Ross, food is definitely something we don’t need more of. The outstanding problem is indeed distribution. In two senses. Most dramatically, there are simultaneously places where excess food is routinely destroyed, and places where lots of people are starving. This is horrible. Less dramatically, we make lots of food and then ship it (or even fly it) around the globe needlessly. Sometimes just out of vanity.
    Most of us will never need even one rocking chair. However there are things other than rocking chairs and food. We have changed our world for the better by making the transistor so cheap. So some increases in productivity are to be welcomed even though we have enough to eat. The main reason, though, why full employment is still sought, is that most people actually prefer having something to do. Weird but true. Ask any newly retired person about the unfilled hours.
    FearlessSon, yes, it sometimes makes sense to trim people from the top. I’ve seen that happen, had a boss who fired himself because he couldn’t justify his salary as a budget item given the other constraints. His role was useful, but the other roles were vital, and so he had to go. Nice guy, but I’ve seen the figures and he was right.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    @Nick

    There actually are jobs like Andrew describes. Unskilled labour, doing exactly one thing, over and over, until you die, retire, get a better job or the job ceases to exist. But there actually aren’t that many. A century ago there were a lot more. A century from now there may be none at all.
    But I don’t think Andrew has one of those jobs, it’s more likely Andrew just _thinks_ his job consists of “one thing” and really it’s quite complicated and multifaceted. He’s persuaded himself that it’s duller than it is, which is an odd sort of thing to do to yourself, but that’s how some people are.
    Very likely Andrew believes he is good at his job. That he ought to get some identifiable and preferably financial reward for being so much better than other people. He might be surprised that _most_ people feel they’re better than others at their job. And sadly, if you rewarded some other employees but not him, he’d be boiling with rage at the (to him obvious) slight.

    I don’t mean that I have only one monotonous task to do, but when I come in to work, the primary thing I do is one that I don’t really have any choice to do something different. I log into my computer, bring up the tools I need, and start taking calls from customers who are calling in. These calls are varied, and lead me to doing all sorts of different things in the course of helping customers, but I don’t get a choice like the one you describe, where I can decide, OK, I can take calls, or answer emails, or work on improving our knowledgebase documentation, or look for people posting in the community forums with problems… No. Those things are all the jobs of other people. My job is to take calls.
    Alright, I do have other tasks such as calling back people who I’ve promised to make outbound calls to, but the main task I have, the one that nearly all my metrics and performance-based rewards are dependent upon, is to take calls.
    Now, you are saying I think I’m good at my job. Well, yes, I do think that. But I don’t think I’m necessarily better than my coworkers. Given that my employer has pretty high standards, and the team I’m on has even higher standards, I’m going to say I’m probably more or less average on my team — and proud of it.
    I don’t think I deserve an identifiable and financial reward for being better than my colleagues because, as I noted, I’m not better than most of them. I deserve an identifiable and financial reward because my employer has promised one to those of us who make certain metrics of productivity. If I take X number of calls per day on average over two weeks, I can expect a certain amount of money. If Y percent of callers who speak to me do not need to call back immediately to work on the same problem, I can expect another certain amount of money. If I make Z amount of sales, I can expect a certain percentage of certain commission-able items among those sales, which is calculated in a complicated fashion that is definitely not worth explaining here but boils down to the more sales you make, the more money you make.
    So, number of calls, effectiveness and completeness of calls, and direct financial benefit to the company all directly contribute to financial rewards. This is true of nearly everyone. The vast majority of people working at my company in non-salary positions get bonuses based on various metrics related to their productivity. Those that do not, know what they did wrong to fail to get those, and are coached intensively to improve. The fact that I get a bonus of, say, $600, while a team-mate gets a bonus of $1200, doesn’t make me boil with rage, because I know WHY I got $600 and he got $1200. It’s because he sold more, or took more calls, or whatever. Now, I’m likely to be envious, sure. I’d like to get that kind of bonus. I’m likely to grumble that he just got lucky and managed to sell a $2000 server to a customer, or something. But am I mad at him? Or mad at the company for paying him more than me? Not hardly — when it boils down to it, if I’m mad at anyone in particular it’s myself, for not doing more and getting to that next level of bonus.
    In short, Nick, all your oh-so-special insights into the world of business reality are full of shit.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/femgeek1 Melle

    Dick Laurent: But hey, I’m sure if we all work hard and get MBAs, everyone can be a CEO at a corporation producing… wait, who will do the producing once everyone’s a CEO? And who grows the food Galt’s Gulch?
    I love that comic more than is probably healthy for me, so thanks for posting it. :D
    Fencerman: This is the charity that the poor give to the rich, every day without even expecting to be thanked for it.
    Aaand that’s going in the file right next to that comic. Have an internet, Fenderman. :)

  • Nick

    “In short, Nick, all your oh-so-special insights into the world of business reality are full of shit.”
    Not mine, those of people who took the time to study how motivation works and what goes wrong with incentive schemes.
    What you describe isn’t unusual, in the same way that bloodletting wasn’t unusual in the 18th century. Bloodletting scarcely worked but its proponents were, like you, absolutely certain they were right for no reason other than that they’d always done it that way. Indeed, so long as everybody else insists it’s the right way to do it, you could see this as a coping strategy. Better to believe you’re rewarded for your effort than face the reality that the outcome is (as you hint you already suspect) hugely random and poorly correlated to the company’s real goals.

  • Xavier

    Not mine, those of people who took the time to study how motivation works and what goes wrong with incentive schemes.

    True. The RSA Animate video I linked says about the same thing, and it backs it up with scientific studies. Though I suspect that it’s only true in jobs that already pay reasonably well. I doubt the same results would be found, say, in the fast-food industry.

  • Underhill

    Though I suspect that it’s only true in jobs that already pay reasonably well. I doubt the same results would be found, say, in the fast-food industry.

    Oh, I don’t know. If the ice cream place I worked at had been closed one day a week so that we could go through and make cakes and cupcakes, do deep cleaning, organize the freezers and so on without having to worry about customers coming in and interrupting, it would have made the place much nicer and probably alleviated a fair amount of stress. It would never happen, of course, but it’s a nice idea.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Nick: Let’s just say I find it extremely dubious that these studies have found that corporations don’t have to pay their employees more in order to motivate them, that in fact paying effective employees more is counter-productive, and that the best way to motivate people is bullshit like what you’re describing, which oh-so-conveniently happens to allow corporations to keep all the value that their employees are creating and share very little of it with them. It seems very likely that the result of these studies were pre-selected and there may be other studies that come to other conclusions that are not widely accepted in the field of business consulting services because they don’t allow their proponents to tell their corporate clients that they can save money by instituting bullshit motivating factors while holding back raises, cutting pay, laying people off, and doing so in a way entirely unrelated to productivity.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com/ Ross

    The main reason, though, why full employment is still sought, is that most people actually prefer having something to do. Weird but true. Ask any newly retired person about the unfilled hours

    Oh. What a lucky coincidence that most people like to work 40 hours a week. Woulda been a bitch if it turned out that half of people were happiest at 32 hours and the other half at 50. (Seriously, you’re full of shit either because you’re not addressing the thing I said, or because you are. Very few people would suddenly find themselves unable to cope with the “unfilled hours” if we switched to a four day work-week.)

    Do I even want to ask?

    a Game Crazy training video made the rounds on the web not long ago. It was done in the style of a sports-news show, and featured a white female reporter who spoke entirely in what-tv-writers-think-hip-urban-people-of-color-speak. With newscaster inflection. (Think ‘There were no survivors. Now,over to you, dawg, with the fo-sizzle in the hizzy. Word to your mothers.’)
    Because Game Crazy isn’t a local chain here, I had to look it up before I realized the whole thing wasn’t some kind of parody.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/lorik922 Lori

    Oh, please do tell! I always get a bitter kind of amusement out of those kind of stories.

    It’s a long, long story better suited to being shared over alcoholic beverages than over the internet, but here’s the short version: At my last FT corporate gig there was a guy who provided one of the inputs that I needed to do my job. I did inventory management, and one of my tasks was to set Min/Max levels so that we’d get a signal when it was time to reorder. He did our forecasting, which is a major input for determining those numbers.
    He made my life a misery in part because his numbers made no sense. As a result our reorder was sub-optimal. He blamed it on me. I pointed out, with numbers to back up my claims, that his forecasting was problematic. He was a manager and had been at the company for years. I was a grunt and had been there less than a year.
    Voila! Lori is Not A Team Player. A rep which caused me no end of other issues at the company.
    Fast forward 2 years. The douchebag gets caught in a kiddie porn sting and loses his job (on the way to prison). He was out of there literally from one day to the next. (News broke on Tuesday. On Wednesday he came in to get his personal items and we never saw him again.) People then had to scramble to get his job done and found that, among other issues, his forecasts were total crap. He was basically just pulling the numbers out his ear.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/femgeek1 Melle

    Ross: a white female reporter who spoke entirely in what-tv-writers-think-hip-urban-people-of-color-speak. With newscaster inflection. (Think ‘There were no survivors. Now,over to you, dawg, with the fo-sizzle in the hizzy. Word to your mothers.’)
    … Dear lord. How on earth did anyone make it through even watching that without a fatal cringing incident, never mind making it? D:
    Lori: It’s a long, long story better suited to being shared over alcoholic beverages than over the internet, but here’s the short version: <snip>
    Well, that’s just a whole ball of Do not Want, right there. Glad to see karma eventually caught up with him, but ugh. Sorry you had to go through that. :(


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X