Changing Places

Lydia McGrew writes compellingly about pressure in companies to advance, to develop one’s career by changing jobs frequently:

there is intense pressure constantly to be changing one’s role in the company. This is billed as “developing,” “advancing.” “Move up or move out,” is the basic message. Even if, as does sometimes happen, you do well at your job and would prefer to keep doing it, and even if your immediate superior likes you and would like to keep you in your present position, the superior himself comes under pressure for not “developing his people.” Ambition is treated as worthwhile in itself, and its absence as a sign that there is something wrong with you as an employee. Not even a sign, really–as definitionally something wrong with you as an employee. Finding something you like and trying to keep doing it well, perhaps even learning to do it better and better? How passe! How quaint! How regressive!

I was thus confronted with an image of some previously unknown circle in Dante’s Inferno, a place of ceaseless, meaningless motion for the sake of motion….

In fact, this “move up or move out” imperative makes the old idea of being a cog in a machine look rather pleasant by comparison. Do you want the cogs in your car to keep randomly evolving into something different? Not at all. You might end up with a car that didn’t run at all, or that ran much worse than before. If the employees were cogs in a machine, their employers would be grateful that they keep on playing their coggish roles efficiently and well and that they do so indefinitely, making the company like a machine that just keeps on forever running sweetly on well-oiled wheels. If the model of employees as cogs in a machine is modern, it seems to me that the corporate world of “move up or move out” is post-modern, a world where everything must morph for the sake of morphing and where this grotesque and pointless movement is called “growth.”

Zippy Catholic argues that this is intrinsic to capitalism.  I don’t think so.  First, the “move up or move out” dogma works in favor of breadth of vision, but also works against expertise.  Doing a variety of jobs, seeing a variety of aspects of the organization, is good training for top managers.  But not everyone is a candidate for top management.  Most people will not become a vice-president.  For the vast majority, developing expertise in doing their jobs well beats developing breadth of vision.  Second, expertise yields growth.  Someone with thirty years’ experience can often solve a problem in minutes that would take an inexperienced person weeks, if it could be solved by them at all.  People with expertise, moreover, can train others to do what they do, multiplying their effectiveness greatly.  Replacing those with expertise with those without can conversely lead to a tremendous loss of effectiveness.

In any case, the dogma has spread far beyond corporate life.  My church, like many under the influence of the church growth movement, is in its grips.  The pastor constantly urges people to “step outside their comfort zones.”  Teams of people with great experience and expertise in doing various tasks are cast aside in favor of those with no experience at all, and are not even consulted.  The result: frequent attempts to reinvent the wheel, which consume lots of time and energy and generally result in something less effective than the original design.  Maybe this promotes the growth of individual Christians (though I doubt it—most of us past a certain age had already grown and learned what we were good at), but it can be disastrous for an organization.

2 thoughts on “Changing Places

  1. brings to mind George Lucas’ first movie THX1138 – where in a dystopian future, the corporate state has taken over religion too … and there’s a scene where the protagonist is in front of a big screen facial image, and proceeds to confess his sinful (individualist-oriented) thoughts … and the image just keeps repeating something to the effect of “I understand, I understand – now just go back to work and be productive.”

    But the problem is never really about ‘religion’ or ‘capitalism’ in their Platonic-ideal definition, rather it’s the abuse of each – the twisting of them to fit other intentions. Capitalism’s emphasis on “division of labor” and “comparable worth” have been the source of great growth in the past century – with a middle class living in greater comfort than most medieval kings. But corporations are inherently dysfunctional – with the allowance for elitism and favoritism, and an emerging management tiering that actually works against efficiency and profit maximization (and therefore against the actual owners of the enterprises). Employment may be a means of survivial to most of its individuals, since if there was no absolute value they wouldn’t stay – but what’s not seen clearly is the disproportionate gain by those who do very little (or perhaps even hinder) within the organization – and it’s that relative value that makes for the endless problem of disequilibrium in the distribution of wealth throughout the economy.

  2. excuse me, I was sans java this morn … instead of “comparable worth” I meant to say “comparative advantage” (thanks David Ricardo). Cheers, Tom

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