Most corporate organizations have failed to adapt to the convexity of creative and technological work, a result of which is that the difference between excellence and mediocrity is much more meaningful than that between mediocrity and zero. An excellent worker might produce 10 times as much value as a mediocre one, instead of 1.2 times as much, as was the case in the previous industrial era. Companies, trapped in concave-era thinking, still obsess over “underperformers” (through annual witch hunts designed to root out the “slackers”) while ignoring the much greater danger, which is the risk of having no excellence. That’s much more deadly. For example, try to build a team of 50th- to 75th-percentile software engineers to solve a hard problem, and the team will fail. You don’t have any slackers or useless people– all would be perfectly productive people, given decent leadership– but you also don’t have anyone with the capability to lead, or to make architectural decisions. You’re screwed.
The systematic search-and-destroy attitude that many companies take toward “underperformers” exists for a number of reasons, but one is to create pervasive discomfort. Performance evaluation is a subjective, noisy, information-impoverished process, which means that good employees can get screwed just by being unlucky. The idea behind these systems is to make sure that no one feels safe. One in 10 people gets put through the kangaroo court of a “performance improvement plan” (which exists to justify termination without severance) and fired if he doesn’t get the hint. Four in 10 get damaging, below-average reviews that damage the relationship with the boss, but make internal mobility next to impossible. Four more are tagged with the label of mediocrity, and, finally, one of those 10 gets a good review and a “performance-based” bonus… which is probably less than he feels he deserved, because he had to play mad politics to get it. Everyone’s unhappy, and no one is comfortable. That is, in fact, the point of such systems: to keep people in a state of discomfort.
The root idea here is that Comfort Is Bad. The idea is that if people feel comfortable at work, they’ll become complacent, but that if they’re intimidated just enough, they’ll become hard workers. In the short term, there’s some evidence that this sort of motivation works. People will stay at work for an additional two hours in order to avoid missing a deadline and having an annoying conversation the next day. In the long term, it fails. For example, open-plan offices, designed to use social discomfort to enhance productivity, actually reduce it by 66 percent. Hammer on someone’s adrenal system, and you get response for a short while. After a certain point, you get a state of exhaustion and “flatness of affect”. The person doesn’t care anymore.
What’s the reason for this? I think that the phenomenon of learned helplessness is at play. One short-term reliable way to get an animal such as a human to do something is to inflict discomfort, and to have the discomfort go away if the desired work is performed. This is known as negative reinforcement; the removal of unpleasant circumstances in exchange for desired behavior. An example of this known to all programmers is the dreaded impromptu status check: the pointless unscheduled meeting in which a manager drops in, unannounced, and asks for an update on work progress,usually in the absence of an immediate need. Often, this isn’t malicious or intentionally annoying, but comes from a misunderstanding of how engineers work. Managers are used to email clients that can be checked 79 times per day with no degradation of performance, and tend to forget that humans are not this way. That said, the behavior is an extreme productivity-killer, as it costs about 90 minutes per status check. I’ve seen managers do this 2 to 4 times per day. The more shortfall in the schedule, the more grilling there is. The idea is to make the engineer work hard so there is progress to report and the manager goes away quickly. Get something done in the next 24 hours, or else. This might have that effect– for a few weeks. At some point, though, people realize that the discomfort won’t go away in the long term. In fact, it gets worse, because performing well leads to higher expectations, while a decline in productivity (or even a perceived decline) brings on more micromanagement. Then learned helplessness sets in, and the attitude of not giving a shit takes hold. This is why, in the long run, micromanagers can’t motivate shit to stink.
Software engineers are increasingly inured to environments of discomfort and distraction. One of the worst trends in the software industry is the tendency toward cramped, open-plan offices where an engineer might have less than 50 square feet of personal space. This is sometimes attributed to cost savings, but I don’t buy it. Even in Midtown Manhattan, office space only costs about $100 per square foot per year. That’s not cheap, but not expensive enough (for software engineers) to justify the productivity-killing effect of the open-plan office.
Discomfort is an especial issue for software engineers, because our job is to solve problems. That’s what we do: we solve other peoples’ problems, and we solve our own. Our job, in large part, is to become better at our job. If a task is menial, we don’t suffer through it, nor do we complain about it or attempt to delegate it to someone else. We automate it away. We’re constantly trying to improve our productivity. Cramped workspaces, managerial status checks, and corrupt project-allocation machinery (as opposed to open allocation) all exist to lower the worker’s social status and create discomfort or, as douchebags prefer to call it, “hunger”. This is an intended effect, and because it’s in place on purpose, it’s also defended by powerful people. When engineers learn this, they realize that they’re confronted with a situation they cannot improve. It becomes a morale issue.
Transient discomfort motivates people to do things. If it’s cold, one puts on a coat. When discomfort recurs without fail, it stops having this effect. At some point, a person’s motivation collapses. What use is it to act to reduce discomfort if the people in charge of the environment will simply recalibrate it to make it uncomfortable again? None. So what motivates people in the long term? See: What Programmers Want. People need a genuine sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something well. That’s the genuine, long-lasting motivation that keeps people working. Typically, the creative and technological accomplishments that revitalize a person and make long-term stamina possible will only occur in an environment of moderate comfort, in which ideas flow freely. I’m not saying that the office should become an opium den, and there are forms of comfort that are best left at home, but people need to feel secure and at ease with the environment– not like they’re in a warzone.
So why does the Discomfort Is Good regime live on? Much of it is just an antiquated managerial ideology that’s poorly suited to convex work. However, I think that another contributing factor is “manager time”. One might think, based on my writing, that I dislike managers. As individuals, many of them are fine. It’s what they have to do that I tend to dislike, but it’s not an enviable job. Managing has higher status but, in reality, is no more fun than being managed. Managers are swamped. With 15 reports, schedules full of meetings, and their own bosses to “manage up”, they are typically overburdened. Consequently, a manager can’t afford to dedicate more than about 1/20 of his working time to any one report. The result of this extreme concurrency (out of accord with how humans think) is that each worker is split into a storyline that only gets 5% of the manager’s time. So when a new hire, at 6 months, is asking for more interesting work or a quieter location, the manager’s perspective is that she “just got here”. Six months times 1/20 is 1.3 weeks. That’s manager time. This explains the insufferably slow progress most people experience in their corporate careers. Typical management expects 3 to 5 years of dues-paying (in manager time, the length of a college semester) before a person is “proven” enough to start asking for things. Most people, of course, aren’t willing to wait 5 years to get a decent working space or autonomy over the projects they take on.
A typical company, as it sees its job, is to create a Prevailing Discomfort so that a manager can play “Good Cop” and grant favors: projects with more career upside, work-from-home arrangements, and more productive working spaces. Immediate managers never fire people; the company does “after careful review” of performance (in a “peer review” system wherein, for junior people, only managerial assessments are given credence). “Company policy” takes the Bad Cop role. Ten percent of employees must be fired each year because “it’s company policy”. No employee can transfer in the first 18 months because of “company policy”. (“No, your manager didn’t directly fuck you over. We have a policy of fucking over the least fortunate 10% and your manager simply chose not to protect you.”) Removal of the discomfort is to be doled out (by managers) as a reward for high-quality work. However, for a manager to fight to get these favors for reports is exhausting, and managers understandably don’t want to do this for people “right away”. The result is that these favors are given out very slowly, and often taken back during “belt-tightening” episodes, which means that the promised liberation from these annoying discomforts never really comes.
One of the more amusing things about the Discomfort Is Good regime is that it actually encourages the sorts of behaviors it’s supposed to curtail. Mean-spirited performance review systems don’t improve low performers; they create them by turning the unlucky into an immobile untouchable class with an axe to grind, and open-plan offices allow the morale toxicity of disengaged employees to spread at a rapid rate. Actually, my experience has been that workplace slacking is more common in open-plan offices. Why? After six months in open-plan office environments, people learn the tricks that allow them to appear productive while focusing on things other than work. Because such environments are exhausting, these are necessary survival adaptations, especially for people who want to be productive before or after work. In a decent office environment, a person who needed a 20-minute “power nap” could take one. In the open-plan regime, the alternative is a two-hour “zone out” that’s not half as effective.
The Discomfort Is Good regime is as entrenched in many technology startups as in large corporations, because it emerges out of a prevailing, but wrong, attitude among the managerial caste (from which most VC-istan startup founders, on account of the need for certain connections, have come). One of the first things that douchebags learn in Douchebag School is to make their subordinates “hungry”. It’s disgustingly humorous to watch them work to inflict discomfort on others– it’s transparent what they are trying to do, if one knows the signs– and be repaid by the delivery of substandard work product. Corporate America, at least in its current incarnation, is clearly in decline. While it sometimes raises a chuckle to see decay, I thought I would relish this more as I watched it happen. I expected pyrotechnics and theatrical collapses, and that’s clearly not the way this system is going to go. This one won’t go out with an explosive bang, but with the high-pitched hum of irritation and discomfort.