The Unity Bell

Those truly seeking productive workforces need to fit a bell curve to work tasks – not workers – to eradicate value-destroying, demoralising work

There has been much talk recently of how organisations still adhere to the Jack Welch strategy of fitting a bell curve to performance of a workforce to pressure employees to increase productivity.

A  manager at Activision Blizzard quit when he refused to mark an employee’s work performance down to fit a bell curve based on a stacked or forced ranking system.

Many executives say they apply this employee ranking system even while understanding the negative impact on employee morale and health, having a deleterious impact on longer term productivity, and thus being counterproductive to the bottom-line objectives of the organisation. This is all proven by research.

When this forced ranking system intersects with unconscious bias and outright prejudice and racism, well the outcome is obvious and the consequences are only now being openly discussed. No doubt it is an important factor in why 6 in 10 woman of colour in Australia experience discrimination in workplaces.

With unionism long threatened with extinction, and through a prolonged period of Extreme capitalism where white collar employees have been convinced to trade increasing proportions of their best time and energy of their lives for envy-producing goods (status symbols and experiences), executives and managers seem bereft of other ideas to wring more production out from their employees.

Well there is a really, really obvious strategy to improve productivity, but very few Executives or Managers have the mental framework to recognise it let alone implement it. 

Below I explain what is this ‘miracle’ strategy to improve productivity and why it is that most executives and managers simply don’t ‘get it’ even though most in the lower levels of hierarchy understand it implicitly.

Q. So what is this miracle strategy to increase productivity? 

A. Apply that bell curve (of distribution) to all of the work tasks that managers’ subordinates perform, not just to regular tasks in a prospective or planning manner, but also in a retrospective manner to capture all of that ad hoc work – which I call ‘just in case’ work – to identify wasted effort on tasks that add little or no value to the bottom line outcomes of the organisation, or even detract from it.

The importance of collecting data on the ad hoc work cannot be overstated because it is in this once fertile field that the toxic sludge from a half century of increasingly extreme capitalism built on unrelenting self-interest is buried; it captures the work performed ‘just in case’ a manager might have a chance to impress those who might have an influence on their career advancement chances, or alternatively to quell the tirade of an overbearing, bullying superior to survive another day.

I say once fertile because that was where the nuggets of value used to lie in a workforce that was not overworked and overwrought from organisational restructure after restructure in the name of increased productivity which in reality destroys it because workers are burnt out and do not have the bandwidth to carry out necessary tasks to the best of their ability let alone have the energy and clear-headedness to notice those rare but oh so precious golden opportunities to add value for the organisation.

The most surprising of all of this is that it is not subtle or ambiguous.

It’s not like it hasn’t been discussed, either. 

That is why there have been books written like “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber and “The No Asshole Rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t” by Robert I. Sutton.

How much work – either ‘bullshit’ or ‘just in case’ – is performed just for each level of the management hierarchy to claim some level of ownership – and credit – over it, but adds no or minimal value to the output?

How much work is performed in haste at the behest of managers that ultimately is edited out of a text, or skipped over quickly in a presentation due to time constraints?

If it is not going to make the cut down the track, or is deemed insufficiently significant enough to mention, then why was that call not made earlier to cut it, preferably filtered out by the manager immediately who thought of it recognising that the level their group is currently working at means that a high bar for potential value-add should be applied to what ad hoc work they forward on to their subordinate group.

The reality is that nobody knows how much pointless ‘bullshit’ and ‘just in’ case work is done for ‘asshole’ managers, managers scared of ‘asshole’ managers, and just plain lost managers trying to survive in a system that they feel controls them rather than vice versa. 

Interestingly those data never seem to warrant collection.

I would point, however, to the success at improving productivity by organisations participating in trials of and/or switching to 4 day work weeks and/or reduced employee work hours without pay reduction.

Note also that organisations open to such changes in employee conditions are likely to be some of the better employers, raising the likelihood that workplaces with cultures less open minded to employee work-life balance would likely enjoy even greater productivity fillips.

I know I hardly need to give examples of these behaviours because everybody who has read to this point will have been flooded with recollections of (probably) both their own actions and those of their managers past and present.

But people like me (having been out of the workforce for 20 years) and Brian Birmingham (the manager who quit his job at Blizzard Entertainment) are relatively rare nowadays in being prepared to speak out openly as most fear implications to their careers. So I will give a personal example.

One of my few genuinely paid ‘gigs’ as a scientist (i.e. with a professional salary rather than subsistence level stipends and fellowships) was as a Government biosecurity policy risk analyst and I was recruited by the head of animal biosecurity after she had completed a one year sabbatical in the group where I completed my PhD. She was a strong, intelligent woman, and at a personal level I enjoyed her company. But professionally she was incredibly controlling even though she was very senior, so much so that she would literally re-write everything that came out of the unit. At the time I had published a widely acclaimed PhD thesis, and at least 10 peer-reviewed journal articles as well as consultancies and magazine articles, and was frequently praised by reviewers for my writing (which was intentionally more concise than my writing on MacroEdgo). None of my immediate managers did this, nor the person who replaced her. It was a complete and utter waste of her time and mine, it was demoralising to be treated in such a way to mechanically sit there and carry out her editing exactly (because it was all done with red pen on typed pages), and it added no value whatsoever to the output of the unit.

The documents were no better or worse, just different. All it did was utterly stamp her mark on the output of the team and put everybody in their place.

In truth having taken the time to write that I now feel it is petty and of limited value. But that is a reflection of the nature of what occurs, and again – this happens to everyone, in one form or another, and it is petty and pointless!

These behaviours destroy productivity over the short, medium and long term.

To the bell….

It is my strong contention that if a distribution were fitted to the quality (in terms of potential value-add to the bottom-line outcomes of the organisation) of tasks asked of employees in most contemporary organisations it would have a strong positive skew as shown below.

Figure 1: Positively skewed distribution of the potential value of work tasks asked of a theoretical ‘typical’ employee – the distribution has a long, fat tail to the right comprising tasks of increasingly marginal and questionable value.

This graphic is taken from The Wall Street Oasis website with the accompanying description:

In investing or finance, a positively skewed distribution tells us that an investment or portfolio is expected to experience frequent small losses and few large gains.

In this case we are talking about investments in human capital in the form of employees’ time, and even more critical, their energy.

Does that positively skewed distribution not explain the work experience for very many?

This sort of statistical comprehension is taught in all business schools. It’s taught in first year undergraduate degrees, for Pete’s sake. It’s Finance 101!

So here’s the thing – if all of this is so obvious, why don’t all of these MBA brightsparks just change and start implementing a bell curve to the tasks they have their subordinates carry out rather than to the rankings from their perception of their subordinates’ performance to improve productivity?

First observation, of course, is that fitting a bell curve to performance is a top down process, whereas fitting a bell curve to tasks, including retrospectively, has a large element of bottom up to it, and that runs counter to the power structure in modern organisations. 

Related to this point, Executives and Managers are products of this current system and most of us humans have a natural aversion to doing away with a system that we have succeeded within. Moreover, maintaining the system produces more of the same types of managers ascending the escalator behind them, and that gives them comfort and embeds affinity bias.

Most importantly, though, bell hooks was entirely correct when she highlighted the significance of and corrosion caused by domination within our contemporary societies and at work, including by women over other women, emanating from our historical system of white-supremacist patriarchy (see relevant quotes in this article and preferably read “The Will To Change: Men, masculinity and love”)

The type of significant culture change that this represents is always resisted because the ranks of executives and managers are full of the products of the existing system, and that is a very significant problem to overcome.

Those who truly want to achieve productivity gains, however, need to weed out the Managers who select for mini-me aggressive types, who for example, recognise themselves in actions which place a manager’s self-interest ahead of their subordinates and then smirk (almost in admiration) when informed by that subordinate. 

Leaders who weed out the assholes, no matter how highly placed in the hierarchy, will be rewarded with significant leaps in productivity which endures because it is the product of a cohesive and engaged community of employees.

What will be observed is that when a compassion imperative supersedes the profit imperative, productivity, and thus profits, are actually improved as a consequence.

Pre-empting the disagreement… (Note, this is getting right into the reeds, so readers without a strong intellectual interest in this area might prefer to skip to the final passage for some masterful lyrical imagery…)

In conducting my desktop research and due diligence for this post I came across an interesting riposte of David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” thesis by researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Birmingham which they claim counter many of Graeber’s main points. 

Their research suggested that indeed there was significant psychological harm to someone from working in a role that they perceived as being pointless.

However, the researchers largely discounted all of the other points of Graeber’s thesis finding that surveys show only around 5% of workers in European countries feel that they were not doing useful work.

I would hope, having read to this point, that the flaw in their argument is apparent.

What the researchers actually did was bury down into workers who answered ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ to the statement: “I have the feeling of doing useful work”.

I am not surprised that only 5% of workers feel that they do work that is of no use. Not at all, because, as the researchers agreed, that is really destructive to mental health so people who feel that way are going to try to move on before long to another role. In nations with social safety nets they will likely quit or find another way to exit the job.

More importantly, however, note that I talk about pointless tasks not a job as in a position or role occupied by an employee. Even ‘jobs’, as in ‘bullsit jobs’, can be a synonym for ‘tasks’, as can the term ‘roles’. 

But these researchers approached the questions based on the employee’s whole job or role as the empirical unit for examination, even though in their journal publication they frequently quoted Graeber’s comments in relation to ‘tasks’.

The reason why Graeber’s thesis captured so much attention is because many, many people – most likely very nearly everybody – does, and has often done, tasks (or ‘jobs’ or ‘roles’) as employees which they considered pointless.

Note, then, that the research did not examine the proportions of employees who felt that some of the tasks that they performed were pointless, so of course there was no opportunity to analyse proportions of their tasks that they performed that they perceived as pointless.

The problem with this analysis is highlighted in the below passage from the “Methodology”.

Figure 2: First paragraph of the “Methodology” section from Soffia, Wood and Burchell (2019) “Alienation Is Not ‘Bullshit’: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs”. Work, Employment and Society36(5), 816–840

The researchers apply a very absolute measure for a ‘useless’ job – essentially the feeling of being totally and utterly devoid of use, or extremely close to it – which in turns sets a very, very low bar for what is a ‘useful’ job, that being the employee sometimes has the feeling of doing useful work. They then go on to argue that they are not (further) lowering the bar by discounting “don’t know” responses, asserting that they achieved some sort of equivalency with Graeber.

I simply do not agree with the authors. These words are meant to create conversation, and Graeber’s certainly did, a point which the authors ultimately seem to appreciate. Okay, whenever anybody writes like this it is impossible to scrutinise every single sentence, phrase and word for law-like precision. Graeber’s words should not be approached as a legal document to be proved beyond a shadow of doubt. Neither, do I suggest, they should just be accepted at face value. It is the thesis that matters and this research, in my opinion, does little to address the true underlying concept or spirit of the thesis. And, importantly, there are some data there that could be drilled down into by the authors, unfortunately that was not done.

Moving on, noting closely that this research was based on pre-pandemic data, it was also interesting to observe that one major issue of apparent contradiction with Gaeber’s thesis was that he listed garbage collectors, and cleaners and helpers as having critical non-BS jobs whereas the survey found that these workers ranked highly for feeling that they did useless jobs (almost 10% in some cases which I find truly saddening).

I would suggest that this shows a level of self-perception, as a reflection of broader societies’ perceptions, on the value of these roles, and this whole issue was put under the spotlight early in the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be interesting to see whether these workers’ self-attitudes have changed through and after the pandemic. 

Moreover, we cannot ignore that much of this attitude is associated with a dismay that society does not value these roles significantly enough to ensure that remuneration reflects the value they add to society in comparison to other roles occupied especially by white collar workers. As Prof. Michael Sandel told us in his meritocracy discourse (discussed on MacroEdgo here in Part 1 and Part 2), it is not just the elites through this long period of Extreme capitalism (my words) that have come to believe that their efforts truly merit their fortunate position within society, but less fortunate people have been forced to accept widening wealth outcomes which have gradually infiltrated their own perceptions of their value to society so that they (sometimes painfully, other times angrily) accede to the view that the situation is a result of them not ‘achieving’ or being ‘meritorious’.

Interestingly the authors arrive at a similar viewpoint to mine, however, when they attribute the social suffering from the feelings associated with useless work to social interactions at work, especially with managers, finding relevance for Marx’s writings on alienation.

It is disappointing that in their study they set the limit for that suffering too low by discounting people so disengaged they did not know whether they ever had the feeling of doing useful work and those who only sometimes have that feeling.

I do not consider that this discourse by the UK researchers dispels what I have written on the subject, nor the underlying premise within Graeber’s thesis, and certainly not Sutton’s discussion of assholes with which they may largely agree.

Finally, I consider it telling that the authors use their perceived debunking of Graeber’s thesis to outright dismiss the need for a universal basic income while at the same time coming out in support of unions. This is a feature of left-wing writing over the past decade that I have noted previously.

Ultimately, I cannot escape the sad reality that working people at all strata of society are poorly served by the political structures with which we entered the 21st century, for the right is motivated to exploit them, and the left to recruit them into unions to staunch their losses from the past half century.

Thus, both sides of the political divide are conflicted, and neither side is truly reflecting the reality of where we are heading in this new era which highlights why this area requires the greatest Reset.

I leave you with the full lyrics to “High Hopes” by David Gilmour and Polly Samson from “The Division Bell” Album by Pink Floyd because they seem somehow incredibly appropriate…

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun

Along the Long Road and on down the Causeway
Do they still meet there by the Cut

There was a ragged band that followed in our footsteps
Running before times took our dreams away
Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground
To a life consumed by slow decay

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
When friends surrounded
The nights of wonder

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide
At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights of that dreamed of world

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder
With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river

Forever and ever

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2023

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