Playoffs and rocking chairs

Playoffs and rocking chairs January 7, 2011

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!

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