If Quiet Quitting Results in Reduced Production – A Big ‘IF’​ – Then It Was Production That Never Was Paid For

The despondency many feel captured in pre-release comments by a friend, immediately agreed upon by another…

Since my comment on LinkedIn about David Westin’s sub-par coverage of Quiet Quitting on Bloomberg Television, I am pleased to observe that he has lifted the bar to his normal high standard. Even articles on Bloomberg’s website with titles ostensibly indicating opposition to the trend on deeper reading point at all of the reasons for why it is an important and necessary development.

On Bloomberg Television’s Wall Street Week from 23rd September David Westin had a much better discussion over these developments with Larry Summers, introducing the topic through Tom Brady’s announcement he is taking each Wednesday off from work.

Larry discussed his concern over the potential impact of these trends on productivity, which is a regular concern mentioned by business leaders and economists, and by politicians in general talking about policies aimed at increasing workplace participation.

It was suggested by Larry that a drop in hours worked by employees of say 3% equated to a pay increase of 3% and a 3% drop in productivity.

It was unclear whether Larry was talking about overtly working fewer hours for the same pay, which is obviously a related issue as it addresses improving work life balance, or whether he was talking about Quiet Quitting which meant the reduction was in reality setting a boundary and that the time being reduced was never paid for by the employer.

If it were the latter, I would find it jarring that there would be concern about a loss in productivity that was obtained as a gift from workers at best, and by exploitation of workers at worst.

Yes, when all of the labour businesses use must be paid for, productivity per dollar spent producing a product will decrease.

But is there not fundamentally something wrong with not paying workers for the labour they supplied to produce the product?

Is that not something that the West has railed against for over a century since slavery was abolished and has objected to with regards to other nations?

There is another problem with this simplistic view, however, and it is made obvious by the data emerging from trials around the world at reducing paid weekly work hours while maintaining the same level of weekly salary. Consistently these case studies are showing that the level of production is maintained even though people are working fewer hours per week, i.e. real labour productivity increases, that being production relative to effort as measured by time.

It is confirmation of what David Graeber said in “Bullshit Jobs”, along with others, and of what I have been saying about ‘just in case’ work consuming large portions of workers’ effort and time.

Many may have trouble accepting this reality. So, as I like to do, I am going to break it down with a concept to show how this all was predictable based on changes in the workplace that have occurred over the past half century of Extreme capitalism.

Implicit in capitalism is a view that each worker will contribute towards the bottom line of the enterprise, whether it be profits for businesses (as in Friedman’s Profit Imperative) or outcomes towards goals for not-for-profits and Government agencies. Of course, as greater acceptance of these Friedman’s precepts spread in management culture, the not-for-profits and Government agencies were reorganised to more closely resemble in function and in culture profit-based organisations so that outsourcing and all sorts of initiatives were undertaken in the name of efficiency (even when experiences were often showing these to result in inferior outcomes).

But the point is that this culture spread so that there is not much cultural difference between workplaces, in general, and that the rare workplaces that standout for being good employers for workers are a result of actively and decidedly swimming against that current.

(Don’t believe me, well check this article out and while I readily admit to being impressed by the Founders, the reader should note I did not even realise that the article I was about to mention in my post was actually on the Atlassian blog until I copied the link.)

What has been the biggest element of these culture changes through the long period of Extreme capitalism?

I would suggest it has been the increased competitiveness between colleagues and the acceptance of a view that the ends – of achieving promotion and other individual rewards – justify almost any means.

This explains a large part of my interest in the reality show “Survivor”, and especially how the show has developed – i.e. competitor tactics or behaviours – over the past two decades, as I have mentioned often in my blog posts.

The belief in the importance of the individual over the collective good has been central to this change. The misbelief that greed is the greatest natural motivator of human beings was used as justification and led to broad acceptance that self-interested actions are a natural and, to some, even admirable modus operandi.

I also have it on good authority – actually several authorities – that recent and temporary migrants from developing nations are especially sort after within strongly domineering organisations as such individuals typically retain a stronger ethic of working towards a collective goal, culturally they are inclined to believe (and are less likely to challenge) their boss and higher executives on what is that goal, and because their extra vulnerability makes them especially compliant and hardworking, and thus less likely to object to their exploitation.

Where did this self-interest culture come from?

Well ask the average person whether they believe many politicians are acting in the interest of the broader community, and whether CEOs deserve pay packets equivalent to 100x the average remuneration within the organisation and then receive a sweet golden handshake when leaving after just a few years at the helm even when their performance was sub-par.

In Australia we even had a recent ex-politician (and Ambassador to the US) admit that the government he was a part of had given up on doing the job of leading the nation, justifying their dereliction of duty with some waffle about private enterprise and the individual.

When people observe those entrusted to lead exploiting the system for their own advantage over the collective good, then the concept of working towards something greater than oneself is not just severely eroded – it is entirely lost!

Why would they be a dope and work for something greater than themselves when nobody else is?

Now I am not for a moment suggesting that ambition to ‘get ahead’ is new, but I would suggest that whereas that saying once indicated a desire to get ahead of regular bills and financial commitments to give a little breathing space in life, now it is given to imply a great deal more about outcompeting colleagues and others in society.

And along the same lines, I will get in quickly before the doubting reader retorts, “but aggressive and dominating bosses have been around since day dot”, and say that the fracturing and individualisation of the workplace – along with strict control of information sharing between colleagues, with legal implications – has weakened those collegial links and made everybody more vulnerable to psychological and other impacts from dominating bosses.

So here is the concept. Whereas 50 years ago there was an assumption that everyone in an organisation knew that they were working towards maximising the bottom line outcomes, and understood within the organisation there would be a spectrum of ambitions held across the workforce, most people believed that the leadership – if not always sympathetic to individual concerns – was invested in those outcomes.

Conceptually that might be depicted as below with all levels of the organisational triangle from the CEO (or highest placed executive) at the peak right down to the newest and most junior members (the bottom level of the hierarchical pyramid) of the workforce committed to working for that outcome. In this model with 6 hierarchical levels above the base level (left triangle) each person has 6 direct reports so that the level below the CEO is responsonsible for the resources below them in the triangle (the middle triangle) and each subsequent heirarchial layer has responsibility for resources below them (as shown in the right triangle for an employee on the second level below the CEO) and so on downwards to the base layer. Thus, this model organisation is composed of 46,656 employees below the CEO.

In the pre-Extreme capitalism period there was an implicit assumption that employees’ motivations were well understood – everyone was working towards the same goals (below left, a portion of the above hierarchical triangle depicting every worker at every level in the organisation motivated to drive towards the desired ‘bottom line outcomes’ for the organisation as indicated by green arrows) while there would be variation in the level of aspiration for promotion amongst the workforce (as indicated on the right in the same portion of triangle, thus the same employees, with various sized red arrows pointing upwards indicating varying aspirations for promotion).

Now from a half century of increasingly Extreme capitalism few really believe that everyone is working primarily towards the stated bottom line outcomes because it is not their lived experience or what they see from people in privileged positions within society.

Yes, I realise that compensation frameworks for high level executives attempt to match remuneration with stakeholder expectations, especially of the owners of capital (large and powerful shareholders), but we all know the whole system has become very short-sighted. Shenanigans that lift share prices rapidly or are at least seen to rapidly achieve other goals, irrespective of long term needs or even consequences, win out with the owners of capital and other influential stakeholders who are more often than not looking for quick gains. But you don’t need to believe me on that, just observe Warren Buffett’s commentary over much of this period (I realise some infer he is a relic who does not understand the modern business world… or is the reality that he imposes a level of authenticity to contemporary business practices that most insiders would prefer left unstated?).

In a very individualised system, where greed is thought of as not just natural but a necessary ingredient for success, where there is no trust that anybody near or around you is authentic and genuinely working primarily towards the bottom line of the organisation, it is very obvious what a person in charge of resources – including labour resources – is going to do…

Of course they see those resources as theirs to get for themselves additional winnings including remuneration and bonuses, promotions, and other status-related trappings of their position which they can brag about internally within the organisation or externally within their social groupings and display to broader society.

The people with greatest self-interest in the system are primarily motivated by using the resources at their disposal for their own purposes, and the degree to which this self-interested motivation outweights organisational bottom line goals is inversely correlated (as below showing the same portion of the organisational triangle as above modified to reflect the situation in Extreme capitalism).

That is where ‘just in case’ work erodes the bottom line of all medium to large organisations – those in charge of these resources fill much of the time of those working under them with extra tasks that might just be handy to make that manager look good, as if they have gone ‘above and beyond’, to those in a position with influence that just might increase their case for rewards including promotion.

This works just the same for those (many) managers with dominating bosses – their anxiety over being picked apart leads them to have their staff following all sorts of red herrings ‘just in case’ their boss has had a bad day and is intent on finding something wrong in what has been done knowing that continual setback will impact their chances of receiving rewards.

Now here is another thing – of those businesses that I mentioned earlier that have been trialing reduced weekly work hours for the same weekly pay, I wonder where these businesses open-minded enough to participate in the trial might be on the spectrum of workplace cultures.

I think most would agree that they are likely to already be some of the better workplace cultures.

And if these ‘better’ workplaces are seeing significant benefits, then you can be sure that workplaces with very dominating and destructive cultures will see very significant benefits.

So I ask anybody thinking deeply on Quiet Quitting and the other broader changes happening in this new era which I refer to as the Great Reset, which revolves around significantly greater self-care through redefining our identities through our broader connection in society, what is the most important task for leaders today…

Convincing workers to go back to the office and doing all of those extra unpaid work hours?

Or implementing a Compassion Culture so that the workforce buys into the authenticity of the bottom-line goals of the organisation?

Now, just as the answer to this question is obvious, so too is the biggest stumbling block – that the escalators of budding executive leaders within organisations are full of the same type of self-interested, hyper ambitious individuals – affinity bias in action – which need to be made to understand that the culture has changed; that the resources that they have been privileged to oversee are living breathing human beings with lives more diverse and complex than their pure utility in the workplace.

This is where I actually was encouraged by the recent widely discussed Gallup research which found that fully two-thirds of managers were not engaged. That supports my thesis because it shows that these people trying to ride the escalators of ascension are also hurting, and I would have been disappointed and discouraged if the findings were at the other extreme.

This means that these managers know that they are not thriving as individuals within such competitive and dominating environments, and many likely are seeking change but feel powerless to achieve it by staying in place, while believing that a shift is unlikely to be to a better workplace culture.

This has actually been a common retort of employers through the workplace changes noticed in the Great Reset era thus far from ‘the Great Resignation’ through to ‘Quiet Quitting’ now.

My response is simple – you are not better off with the devil you know!

Think about what you said. You are dealing with a devil!

And we all need to have greater optimism in humanity and that the best we can aim for is to be accepting of our exploitation.

It has long been my view, based on vicarious observation, and ultimately trauma, that for many who spend time in a deeply toxic work environment their behaviour migrates from civil to increasingly boorish as they learn from observation and experience that such behaviour is more frequently rewarded within the culture.

Such compromises to character and values are not done without a psychological cost to those who plasticise their personality for personal gain.

The bottom line is this – managers will buy into a Compassion Culture if the leader is authentic. And those who resist, those truly psychopathic managers out there (I recall one Australian survey found that 1 of 6 managers had psychopathic traits) who have been favoured by the selection process and affinity bias applied through the Extreme capitalism period, will simply need to be culled.

And if senior decision-makers baulk at the thought of paying out the phsychopathic managers to remove them, just consider for a moment the cost of not doing that in terms of productivity loss from their negative impacts, and worse still, costs from injury claims and legal costs that I stated are likely to explode over the years ahead especially for organisations slow or resistant to implement a Compassion Culture.

Perhaps the biggest question is exactly how many of the psychopaths made it to the real seats of influence within our organisations. As my close connection made clear in their comments to me in the photographic header to this post, and another who read their comments and immediately agreed, there are many who have been in these environments for several decades and are deeply despondent in their belief that there are far too many psychopaths in influential positions to even countenance that positive change is possible.

But I think you will agree, Larry Summers, perceived drops in productivity from Quiet Quitting is really quite trivial when we consider the prospective unleashing of the full creative potential of humanity in the Great Reset era where work life balance is sustainable and people identify fully with their broad contributions to society …

Published first on LinkedIn on 30th September 2022

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2022

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