Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with a reader around frustration and unhappiness at work. Much of it was totally obvious to both of us, but it occurred to me that this probably isn't to everyone, which is why almost all of my colleagues (in very cushy, non-stressful jobs) nonetheless need therapy. And if it isn't obvious to everyone, it's worth writing about.
I now believe that this stems from a failure to recognize the gap, frequently vast, between what is being said by a person and what is being felt, and how this discrepancy applies to organizations too.
It was sparked by reference to a concept called the honne-tatemae divide, which are Japanese concepts related to the true feelings of an individual and the front they present in public. I don't actually know anything about the Japanese context beyond this one Wikipedia article, so this has been dropped entirely so that I seem worldly and to give us vocabulary less onerous than "what you really think" and "what you're forced to say".
I have never met a single manager at any large company that has not said they want to be data driven. I have also never seen a single one of them take any steps that could actually move them in this direction.
Nonetheless, the average annual salary for a Power BI developer places them in the 90th percentile of my country's annual income. For those of you unfamiliar with Power BI, you connect it to data sources and then it makes visualizations for managers to gawk at, and it is so simple to use that it is not inconceivable to me that you could actually train a monkey to make a bar chart with the correct application of positive reinforcement and peanuts.
There are a handful of people who do amazing things in Power BI, but the hard truth is that most people who work in it are really just dragging-and-dropping bar charts onto a page after connecting it to a spreadsheet, being paid absolutely exorbitantly, and then if they're smart, going home and despairing. This is because Power BI tracks usage metrics and almost all dashboards are completely unused.
My current organization has 8000 staff members, and I used to glance over the usage metrics of the dashboards my old team produced. I believe three dashboards were used, out of somewhere around 50 - 100. Of those being visited, it usually turned out they were being visited by members of our team checking to see if the data had refreshed for the day. I'd estimate the cost of maintaining our team was approximately $1,000,000 for an organization that supposedly can't afford to waste that money.
Management has no choice but to say that they want to be data driven. It's not like they can just come out and say that it's all fucked - so they say the only thing that is available. We are going through a "digital transformation", and that is why all of these efforts don't generate any revenue and drive staff to misery. It will be better once this current initiative successfully completes, even though we have never demonstrated the ability to successfully complete a similar initiative at any point in the past.
There are two pressures that drive the garbled stream of corporate of nonsense at organizations.
I. Sturgeon's Law
The first one is very simple, and I sometimes lose sight of it while I'm deep in the theory mines of incentives and other smarter takes. 90% of everything is crud, and that explains almost everything. Most managers have never had an independent thought on how to manage people effectively (hence the Agile parroting), most programmers don't know what an abstraction is, etc, etc. This is the overwhelming factor even though it isn't a satisfying answer, but it has done more for my own peace of mind than anything that follows.
I used to be pretty good on the fencing circuit - as in, olympic fencing, with the swords. It never occurred to me for even a goddamn second that we could win competitions without having good, smart people that understood the sport and trained hard. If we lose because Derek didn't turn up to practice for six months, I might be pissed off and upset, but I am not spiritually confused about why my efforts aren't rewarding me.
I have no idea what possesses us to turn up at work and think that we can accomplish anything with fucking Derek over there calling the shots while slamming their empty head onto a keyboard as rapidly as Jira will allow him to create cards we won't finish, but for some reason it's a thing that happens.
Derek will repeat whatever brain-dead thing is in vogue but they are very stupid and will repeat literally anything that sounds popular, plus will never question that they have never had an unambiguous success over their entire career. This means they will inevitably become promoted over time, because unlike the rest of us who have to put in effort and pay what a friend of mine terms soul cost to act like a sycophant, they believe it sincerely.
II. Sturgeon's Law Again
Here's the pressure if you're in the 10% of people that aren't crud at their jobs - you're surrounded by people that are crud.
Don't get me wrong - I am that terrible person at many things. There are fencing teams where I'd be absolute dead weight. My piano playing leaves much to be desired. Last week, I managed to stub the little toe on both feet, on the same day, on two separate occasions, and I have on at least one occasion absentmindedly dropped a teaspoon into the trash instead of a tea bag.
However I don't do any of that professionally. In professional settings, approximately all of my time goes into solving problems introduced by people that are just indescribably bad.
I work on a platform that cost my organization an eye-watering sum of money to produce, over the span of two years, and the engineers responsible for it elected to use spreadsheets to control the infrastructure, so we now have a spreadsheet with 400 separate worksheets that powers but one part of this whole shambling mess.
Can you imagine the kind of havoc such people could wreak upon infrastructure and code if left unchecked?
Is there any chance a team with people like that is going to produce good results? Obviously not. Do most teams at large organizations have at least one person like that? Sweet merciful Christ, in both my first, second, and perhaps even third-hand experience, whatever that means, it's possible that half of all teams consist entirely of that person.
Can my manager keep their job if they honestly say "There is no chance this team will ever hit its objectives"? Fuck no, if they did that they'd be gone, so the system is constantly selecting for people that are either too dumb to realize it's hopeless, too perversely incentivized to be honest, or too deep into despair to admit to themselves it is hopeless.
III. Ignoring Is Bliss
From the Tao of Programming:
A novice asked the Master: "In the East, there is a great tree-structure that men call 'Corporate Headquarters'. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and accountants. It issues a multitude of memos, each saying 'Go Hence!' or 'Go Hither!' and nobody knows what is meant. Every year new names are put onto the branches, but all to no avail. How can such an unnatural entity exist?"
The Master replied: "You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational purpose. Can you not take amusement from its endless gyrations? Do you not enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why are you bothered by its uselessness?"
I quote the above because it is very funny, and because the only thing that has brought me clarity is totally ignoring anything management says unless I have a very good reason to believe the person I am speaking to has intelligence, integrity, and has come to terms with the fact that large organizations are inherently dysfunctional, which happens rarely.
I have a friend that was denied a raise after working at a company diligently for five years - there was no budget, he was told. He was upset, and ended up spending a year traveling the world on sabbatical.
While he was away, a new position opened up in the same department, for the same job title - it was a permanent role, theoretically exactly the same job he was doing in an identical team with the same managers. They gave me that job, all the money he asked for, plus another hefty sum on top of it.
Management saying there was no budget meant nothing - it is purely a thing they are forced to say, and if the person saying it was not particularly insightful, they even believed it. The only thing an organization can do that means anything is actually solving your problem, and any words to the effect of "we'll address your concerns soon" or "we just need to do some planning around this", etc, should just be ignored wholesale.
These days, I ignore everything they've said about salary (I just state a number and don't budge, and they usually just give me what I want despite saying it was impossible), I ignore everything they say around work culture and the teams they want to build (I don't factor it into my decisions around whether it's a team I'd like to join because I know it isn't trustworthy), and frankly, sometimes I just ignore them because fuck 'em, why not?
Similarly, I let them talk as much as they want about work culture or whatever. These are the endless gyrations of the great tree structure, rustling in the wind. Actually remove the staff that no one works to work with or who terrorize their subordinates and I'll know you're serious about performance. Reward people for staying, and I'll know you're serious about valuing people. Anything short of that is less than worthless, because you've wasted valuable time I could have been listening to music.
It's much more peaceful to solve a few problems, not waste a single iota of my energy on creating systemic change unless we're going to try curing cancer, then log off to touch grass. Realizing that no mere words can demonstrate an appetite for true change was necessary for me to make that change in my life - hopefully it does the same for someone else.