The Wussification of the Workplace- UPDATES

:::WARNING: The very funny and insightful essay and link I am about to present to you contains a variation of the “S” word and several renderings of the “F” word. If you cannot handle the “F” word in any context, please do not follow this link. Go write me a letter about how scandalized you are that any Catholic site would dare to suggest that you read something that contains the “F” word, and then, rather than tempting yourself away from charity, tear it up and pray for me, instead. You are formally warned.

If you read further, you might be tempted to press the link and see “S” and “F” words, so stop reading, right now. END WARNING:::

“We need to talk about our goals; it’s part of the performance review…”

“Bullshit” Is One Word, “Performance Review” Two
by Larry McCoy

I had just arrived in the newsroom for my shift as a copy editor when a manager came over to my desk and declared, “We need to discuss your goals.” I was 66 years old – past retirement age, damn near old enough to be his father – and he wants to discuss my “goals.”

“Go away,” I told him. Preparing to take over the main desk was always an extremely hectic part of the day. I was “reading in,” as journalists call it, looking at all the stories that had been edited that day by the main desk. It was impossible to read every story from start to finish, so you skimmed some, skipped some and made sure you thoroughly read the big ones you knew would be changing once you took over the desk.

Floyd, the name we’ll give the manager, wasn’t attuned to the idea of a right time and place to do things. Like a squirrel digging for nuts, Floyd kept at it. “We have to discuss your goals sometime. It’s part of your Performance Review.”

“Well, we’re not doing it now. Go away!”

Floyd was both dense and tone deaf. He wouldn’t go away. If only Floyd were as dogged in fleshing out a good story. The Performance Review had to be done, he said. I wasn’t going to budge either. It was a crock – something dreamed up by the morons in Human Resources who had nothing to do and, worst of all, absolutely no experience in newsrooms. They all ought to be fired, I said, several times in several ways. This back and forth continued, with the volume of each exchange rising, until the magic words came out.

“Go f–k yourself,” I said.

Read Larry McCoy’s whole piece, and ponder that picture above, and the one below. How did we get from there–brazen enough to walk the sky–to the cowering, over-serious and grim reality of today’s gray-cubicles-gray-minds-MBA-saturated-workplace bureaucracies?

Note the scaffolding

A man I know began working 20 years ago at a large corporation that he deemed it a pleasure to work for. The CEO and founder was (gasp!) a commoner, an ordinary engineer who had an idea and ran with it. Perhaps because he had worked for a living, and had not simply stepped out of a “good” school with an MBA, he knew how to treat the people who worked for him; compensation was generous; enthusiasm and imagination brought perks, and morale was high. People worked late because they were excited; they wanted to keep working.

Then the CEO sold his enormously successful company to a corporate giant. Out went the upper management that had been honed “from the ranks,” as it were. In came the suits; the suave and studied men and women, from business schools, not engineering, who could talk about what wine went with what entree, or their walking holiday in Burma, but had no understanding of the dreamers (and engineers are dreamers, before they are anything) whose knowledge and imaginations they needed to ensnare and encourage, and whose intelligence and dignity deserved respect.

Not just respect, but inclusion.

Morale quickly went down. Working for suits who knew all the “theory” of business, and how to read numbers, but had not the least understanding of what made a “human resource” so resourceful, the engineers and developers and testers and marketers and admins began to rush out the door as soon as the clock struck five. The fun was gone, the energy sapped; enthusiasm was no longer on the radar.

People who work late, these days, do it because corporate downsizing means they are doing the work of 1.5 people; they must work 16 hour days, just to stay on schedule, if they want to keep their jobs. There are no longer burning the midnight oil by choice.

These suited MBA’s can’t seem to get it. Huddled in their enclaves, they have difficulty understanding that a hard-working engineer with excellent problem-solving skills, a positive outlook and a knack for team-building needs more than an official performance review that ends with a condescendingly vague note about his being “a valuable member” of the collective whole. He needs recognition of himself; the individual he is, the singularity of his abilities. He needs to know that he may dare to dream of more, that there is, for him, a chance to move into the upper echelons of the company, even if he really would prefer a Diet Pepsi with his Salmon TarTar, rather than a $150 bottle of wine.

The same elitism that has overwhelmed government and left it out-of-touch with the people they were meant to serve, has infected the workplace, and it is demoralizing the work-force. The man I know has considered moving to a new job, several times, but friends of his who have moved report that it is the same everywhere: there is a class divide, and the urbane upper-management sorts seem not to understand that managing people means more than making sure you have an appropriate women-to-men ratio. It means valuing not just an employee’s skill, but the whole, human person. It means understanding that sometimes passion trumps policy, and should be encouraged; that every raised voice should not require a negative notation to the personnel file; every case of “hurt feelings” should not require three-days of “sensitivity training,” until your fed-up employees choose to divest themselves of anything smacking of personality, color, emotion or enthusiasm, simply to avoid the grim “facilitated interface,” full of meaningless corrective language, that will send him back to his cubicle feeling frustrated, confused, emasculated (even if she is a female) and ultimately defeated.

How can anything great be born of such sterility? How can anything hopeful and alive be harnessed in a stream full of dead things, going with the flow?

The men who built the Empire State Building stood on bare planks to work in the sky; paradoxically, they were grounded in reality, not theory. They did not have to concern themselves with tones and timbres; nor did the educated architects who dreamed up skyscrapers. One suspects that if either the man on the beam or the one with the blueprints had been approached by a tanning-booth-bronzed-and-manicured corporate bureaucrat, and asked to enumerate their “goals” as part of their “performance review” they both would have hooted at him in derision. “My goal,” the first would say, “is to not fall. It’s to stay alive so I can pick up my pay, have a beer with the wife, raise the kids and get into heaven a half-hour before the devil knows I’m dead.”

“My goal,” the architect would say dismissively, “is to make your jaw drop, and the drop it some more; I want to build a mystery!”

Very likely the bureaucrat
–too timid to walk the sky, and too unimaginative to even conceive scraping it–would have found their answers vague, and given both of them low marks in team-building, professional comportment and attention to guidelines. He would recommend training meant to get them comfortable with thinking and living inside the approved boxes, “and at no point should such recklessly lighthearted men be considered for promotion,” he would write.

More’s the pity.

Deacon Greg Kandra, who once worked for Larry McCoy, remembers a newsman.

The NY Times wonders, Is it time to review workplace performance reviews?

From a very different setting and perspective, Fr. James Martin finds himself all out of patience with another sort of grimness that lacks imagination, understanding and courage, because they don’t think you can build a mystery. Don’t miss it.


Architects and Medicators

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • CV

    These images remind me of the famous “men on a crossbeam” photo.

    The guys were taking a lunchbreak while working on the RCA building at Rockefeller Center in 1932.

    No, they were definitely not wusses!

  • JessM

    I am a workplace refugee – 25 years of high tech. American corporations deteriorated steadily over the last 20 years. When I first started, it was hugely exciting to get to work each day and to power through the tasks. If you were lucky, your investment and the collaboration with your colleagues resulted in stock option values that rewarded everyone.

    Then the massive search for fresh capital became everything. Companies devoured one another, oddly physically perfect but morally bankrupt MBA types stole the reins of power, the shenanigans started up in tandem with the layoffs. And corporate hell was birthed. Funny, now that I type all that I can see the path that Obama followed. Never realized that before…

    So here I am, mostly washed up at 56. Funny though, because I can still work like the dickens and run circles around most Gen-Xers. But the baton has been passed to the cuttthroat narscissistic spawn of the Boomers. Pity. I sure can’t say I miss it, though.

  • Rusty

    I love your blog, and I’m not offended in any way by your link to the story with the “F” word, but you know, I wonder sometimes why you and others send people Fr. Martin’s way, when he clearly subtly undermines Church teaching on the ordination of women (among other issues). The man is clever, but very dangerous.

  • ElizabethK

    You’re right–and this reminds me of something: In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Hotspur has a great speech where he mocks the foppish envoy who accosts him with stupid questions, holding a scented hankie to his nose, immediately after battle. But Shakespeare also knew: Hotspur must die for Prince Hal to rise, the Prince Hal who uses the common people as his stepping stone to power, but is never really of them. I heart Hotspur.

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  • simeon

    I’m retired from the aerospace industry and the story told is indicative of the entire American corporate “culture.” It is not performance that counts, it’s how you dress, whether or not you meet certain “cultural diversity” images, or if you are “management” material (i.e., how many politically correct words are in your vocabulary and since you don’t know anything but have a master’s degree, what else are they going to do with you). Whether we were working on deadline for NASA or the U.S. Air Force, you had to make time for the meeting regarding “ethical decision-making” (run by those who were unethical), the “significant business issue” (how do we improve production and cut costs in which, if one responded by calling for an end to these meetings, one would see one’s career quickly diminish before their superior’s eyes) and the all-encompassing total quality management system (overseen by totally incompetent managers). Meanwhile, the ol’ boys network who met in their respective secret societies continued their pats on the back, immoral executive compensation and, at the risk of the assembly line worker’s job, they ensured their executive “entitlement” bonus. These people believe that even if it meant laying off thousands of people at the end of the year, they could reach their profit “numbers” and thereby “earn” their bonuses. In reality, not one of them could put a rivet in a fuselage or fly anything the company built. But they were there because they were the company founder’s son’s former college roommate who shared their intimate secrets discovered in the debauchery of their fraternity’s orgies. The sooner America closes its institutions of “higher learning” and the secret societies that foster them, the sooner our government and economic system will return to normalcy. Of course, this message will got me ostracized by those within the “system” (this includes any entity within our nation today) but that’s why they retired me. Sorry also to mention that “secret societies” stuff; just ignore the writings of the popes on this subject.

  • newton

    I read that whole piece… I laughed so darned hard.

    Office Space was not off the mark, either.

  • dry valleys

    You know what this also has to do with, don’t you?

    It is related to left-wing parties bringing in policy wonks, lawyers, teachers & professional arse-wipers to replace the old stalwarts of working-class union men from families like those which were often found in my grandfather’s time. (This was also an excellent road to social mobility for many a man of humble birth… although admittedly my forefathers were very disparaging about people who “got above themselves”, as were most working-class people of that time, or probably any other).

    These manual jobs & their opportunities to work one’s way up by company or union sponsorship no longer exist because neoliberalism has changed the face of the country so that their heirs & successors are now in menial service jobs, or on welfare.

    Essentially, the honest & manly culture which you rightly see the virtues of has been hollowed out by right-wing corporations. I saw a bit of it when I worked in a real old-school factory during my summers when I was a student. They could have told you their views on time & motion people sent from head office in a way that would make Larry McCoy sound like a little girl.

    My own job is actually lower paid & less useful than theirs, but is much easier, especially because I’m good at it which I wasn’t when I had to pick heavy loads up & carry them round & do obscure things with industrial machines.

    It could be a bit stifling at times & those who had a more precious attitude than mine tended not to last but it was a good world to have got a glimpse into, though a dying one. So a man can be forgiven for asking whether handing over the economy to City bankers & estate agents was really worth it.

    A lot of people who are required to be hatchet-faced at work actually really know how to let their hair down when they are off duty. I’m sure there are permanently colourless bureaucrats but most people in all jobs can laugh about it. We appreciate that you can joke even about serious things & it is in fact often the best or the only adequate response.

  • YogusBearus

    Thank you for a delightful piece Anchoress. I live across the street from an elementary school and often watch the silver haired custodian do the classrooms in the evening. At 11:00PM, while our highly paid school superintendant is comfortably home in bed, this 70 something gentleman purposely goes through his routine.
    I know the routine now because it doesn’t change. No wasted motion, no breaks for phone calls or coffee. I’m struck by how much dignity this man brings to his work.

    I’m guessing he wouldn’t have to change the liners in the waste basket every night. I doubt anyone would know or notice but he would. I hope someone somewhere realizes the worth of this man and tells him how important he is. I guess I better find a way to tell him myself.

    [You should! It would probably make his day, week and month! _admin]

  • david foster

    There are still excellent companies and excellent executives, but I think in general, the quality of management in American businesses (and other kinds of institutions) has declined. This is partially a function of excessive emphasis on theory-based knowledge versus tacit, experience-based knowledge. See my post Management Mentalities, which excerpts some thoughts from Peter Drucker.

  • http://deleted Michael

    It’s not the suits. They can be nanaged.

    It’s the government. It’s the regulators. Actually, it is the women from the temperance league (a metaphor for all the do-gooders who will move heaven and earth to build a bike path along a river but would never allow a factory to be built along a river again – the very factories that made America great).

    Look at the site of the Twin Towers. The private rebuild is up and running better than ever. The government/public rebuild is a hole in the ground 9 years on. The Empire State could have been built, torn down, and built again a few times over, and it would be better and beautiful if you left people to their own.

    The government and the girls won’t allow anything anymore.

    PC is killing America. Literally.

    If we don’t fight them and put them back in their places, America will be over soon.

  • Joe

    This is why upstart companies occasionally (but fairly regularly when technology changes) come out of nowhere and sweep away the competition. The more of that the better.

    MBAs are way overrated. Like JD degrees, only more useless.

  • david foster

    Hi Anchoress…I posted a comment with a very relevant link but is appears to have been eaten by a spam filter…

  • Left Coast Conservative

    I’ve got a performance review coming up. I like the idea of saying “world peace”. And the next time they mention my clothes, I’m going to ask if they want me to copy the trend in GB this week?
    This was too funy. Thank you Anchoress. A welcome respite from an otherwise dismal week.

  • RandyB

    Note that all of this transformation of the American workplace took place as the Boomer generation moved into the management and executive ranks of American businesses.

  • cathyf

    I absolutely loved the line about “controlling outbursts” — a “controlled” outburst is no longer an outburst it’s a whine!

    Of course I spent two decades or so working for derivatives traders, the last really manly profession (well, maybe nfl football player, major league ball player or nba b-ball player has more testosterone, but not by much.) We were the b-school concentration (mathematical finance) that The Suits were afraid of…

  • Mimsy

    Good essay…there is something Kafkaesque in his experience with Performance Reviews and Goals. It seems that Human Resources understands neither Humans nor Resources.

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  • Trish

    Your point is well-taken and all too accurate, Anchoress! A similar thought has been discussed by myself and others who have been watching the History Channel’s (mostly) very good show, America – The Story of Us. Watching what our forebears suffered and persevered through (a decade of locust infestations across the Midwest, enduring 400 tornadoes a year in Nebraska, handling liquid nitroglycerin to build the Continental Railroad, etc.) has made it clear that we have become a generation of whiny, spoiled wusses!! (After watching a segment on those amazing people who pushed westward, it was stunning to hear of the police union that wanted to be able to have their minutes of getting dressed be counted as time on the clock and get paid for that time.) Have we been the victims of our own success?

  • Paco

    Not sure it is worth commenting but as an MBA working for a major corporation, thanks for telling me I am worthless and unproductive

    [Actually, my husband is an MBA working for a major corporation, but he took a little more away from the piece than you did. Suffice to say, there are MBA's and then there are bureaucrats. If you are interested, take a look at the updated link to the NY Times piece; you'll see that many people are wondering if performance reviews don't do more harm than good, both to the reviewed and the reviewers. -admin]

  • Sue from Buffalo

    I love the article. We’ll go back to that time where whining will cease. Watch. We’ll be forced into it. Nuff said.

  • waltj

    I’m fortunate that my managers regard home office-imposed performance reviews and mandatory “sensitivity” classes as nothing more than box-checking exercises that have to be done to please the suits, but are not to be taken seriously.

    I’m also fortunate that while I’m already in my mid-50s, I still look forward to walking through the door every morning, and I have to pry myself away from the office every evening. Any time my boss’ door is open, I can plop down and discuss practically anything with him. Same thing with his boss, who happens to be the senior executive in our branch office.

  • james wilson

    As Hayek saw it, the problem is that man can rarely foresee his own advance, the astonishing fact being that order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive. Progress is achieved through creativity within a process of unconscious self-organization of a structure or pattern. Performance reviews and goals cannot move that ball forward. Pruning does that, committees do not.

    The best run and most successful businesses are precisely the ones that are least able to change when change becomes necessary. And change always becomes necessary.

    Very upsetting.

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  • WWWebb

    There are times when “human resources” is neither.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Oh I wish that I were not at work and had more time to write a meaningful comment. I had a long and mostly great career as an senior executive by “default not design” as I always put it. No MBA here.

    You say, “It means valuing not just an employee’s skill, but the whole, human person. It means understanding that sometimes passion trumps policy…”

    How true this is. When I saw that I would not be able to continue to run a department with soul, passion and humanity, I knew it was time to go.

    And now I work for the church.

  • Paco

    I am glad you know that there are good MBAs as well as bad. I think I was reacting to the fact that all your references to MBAs were unflatering to say the least.

    “to the cowering, over-serious and grim reality of today’s gray-cubicles-gray-minds-MBA-saturated-workplace bureaucracies?”

    “had not simply stepped out of a “good” school with an MBA”

    In came the suits; the “sophisticated” men and women, “from the right schools,”

    “These suited MBA’s can’t seem to get it”

    I have certainly seen my share of poor managers in my 33 years since college but I would not even want to guess how many were MBA’s. One of the worst was a non-MBA who felt the need to belittle others in public.

    I certainly appreciate demanding physical work and creative work like engineering. However,I think what many non-managerial workers do not understand is that the larger a business becomes the more bureaucratic it gets just to survive. The link about Architects and Medicators was interesting but even there it is too easy to assume that the MBA is a medicator. Corporations are complex entities that need complex systems and processes to function. This is similar to a building that has a physical structure but also has heating, cooling, ventilation, water, sewer, fire protection and other systems that make it habitable. MBAs are often like the maintenace crew that monitors the systems and processes to make sure they are working efficiently. Like those maintenance men we do not tear the whole thing out unless it is beyond repair or no longer suited to its task. This takes as much mental agility sometimes as the steelworker has physical agility. Not to mention that these processes involve “diverse” people such as the editor in your main story who are not always willing to cooperate. Since many of these processes are abstract it is not always obvious to these participants why something has to change.

    Errors are made by people regardless of formal or informal education or their level in the hierarchy.

    I agree that performance reviews leave much to be desired. This is especially true when the format and process are changed so often that each round involves learning new terms and converting last format to new.