Book Recommendations: An Everyone Culture and Moral Mazes

Epistemic Sta­tus: Casual

I highly recom­mend An Every­one Cul­ture, by Robert Ke­gan, and Mo­ral Mazes, by Robert Jack­all, as com­pan­ion books on busi­ness cul­ture. Mo­ral Mazes is an an­thro­polog­i­cal study of the cul­ture and im­plicit ethics of a few large cor­po­ra­tions, and is an eye-open­ing illus­tra­tion of the prob­lems that arise in those cor­po­ra­tions. An Every­one Cul­ture is an in­tro­duc­tion to the idea of a “de­liber­ately de­vel­op­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion”, an at­tempt to fix those prob­lems, plus some case stud­ies of com­pa­nies that im­ple­mented “de­liber­ately de­vel­op­men­tal” prac­tices.

The ba­sic prob­lem that both books ob­serve in cor­po­rate life is that ev­ery­body in a mod­ern office is try­ing to con­ceal their failures and pre­sent a mis­lead­ingly pos­i­tive im­pres­sion of them­selves to their em­ploy­ers and cowork­ers.

This leads to lost pro­duc­tivity.

For in­stance:

  • The longer one tries to cover up a mis­take, the costlier it will be to fix it.

  • The less ac­cu­rately credit is al­lo­cated for suc­cess or failure, the harder it will be to in­cen­tivize good work.

  • The more em­ploy­ees mis­in­form their bosses, the worse-in­formed the bosses’ de­ci­sions will be.

  • The more peo­ple are con­cerned with main­tain­ing ap­pear­ances, the less cog­ni­tive ca­pac­ity they will have for pro­duc­tivity and cre­ativity.

  • The more un­ac­cept­able it is to ac­knowl­edge “per­sonal” con­cerns (emo­tions, phys­i­cal health, in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion or lack thereof), the harder it is to fix pro­duc­tivity prob­lems that arise from “per­sonal” prob­lems.

Mo­ral Mazes ba­si­cally takes the view that the Protes­tant work ethic re­ally died in the mid-to-late nine­teenth cen­tury, when an Amer­i­can econ­omy defined by small busi­ness own­ers and free­lance pro­fes­sion­als was re­placed by an econ­omy defined by larger firms and the rise of the man­age­rial pro­fes­sion. The Protes­tant work ethic de­clared that hard work, dis­ci­pline, and hon­esty would bring suc­cess. The “man­age­rial work ethic” holds that a good em­ployee has quite differ­ent “virtues” — things like

  • abil­ity to play politics

  • loy­alty & will­ing to sub­or­di­nate one­self to one’s manager

  • “flex­i­bil­ity” (the op­po­site of stub­born­ness — not hold­ing strong in­di­vi­d­ual opinions)

To give an out­side ex­am­ple, the au­thor of “The Western Elite from a Chi­nese Per­spec­tive” was com­ing from a “Protes­tant work ethic” cul­ture of hard work (though not, of course, ac­tu­ally Protes­tant) and en­coun­ter­ing the “man­age­rial work ethic” cul­ture of Amer­i­can office poli­tics.

Mo­ral Mazes re­lies on the au­thor’s ob­ser­va­tions and in­ter­views with man­agers. I’m sure it’s not a fully ob­jec­tive por­trayal — per­haps the au­thor se­lected the most damn­ing quotes, and per­haps the most dis­grun­tled and cyn­i­cal man­agers were the most will­ing to talk. But the pic­ture the book gives is of a cul­ture where:

  • rank is ev­ery­thing — con­tra­dict­ing your boss, es­pe­cially in pub­lic, is ca­reer suicide, and defer­ence to su­pe­ri­ors is expected

  • be­yond a cer­tain min­i­mum floor of com­pe­tence, ob­jec­tive job perfor­mance doesn’t de­ter­mine ca­reer suc­cess, poli­ti­cal skill does

  • “credit flows up­wards, de­tails flow down­wards” — higher-rank man­agers take credit for work done by their sub­or­di­nates, and the higher-rank you are, the fewer ob­ject-level de­tails you con­cern your­self with

  • mis­takes and bad de­ci­sions are re­li­ably con­cealed; then, when the in­evitable catas­tro­phe hap­pens, who­ever’s poli­ti­cally vuln­er­a­ble takes the fall

  • man­agers are tested for their “flex­i­bil­ity” — some­one with strong opinions about the best en­g­ineer­ing de­ci­sions or with rigid eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples will not rise far in their career

If you watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Joel Maisel’s job at the plas­tics com­pany is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the man­age­rial work ethic; he’s ba­si­cally a pro­fes­sional syco­phant. He’s burned out and un­mo­ti­vated, and he leaves to “find him­self” as a co­me­dian, but quickly re­al­izes he has no tal­ent at com­edy ei­ther. In­stead, work­ing in his father’s gar­ment busi­ness, he comes to life again. He learns the nitty-gritty of the fac­tory floor, the ac­count­ing, the ma­chines, the seam­stresses and their per­sonal needs and strengths and weak­nesses. It’s a beau­tiful illus­tra­tion of the differ­ence be­tween fake work and real work.

An Every­one Cul­ture‘s pre­scrip­tion for the prob­lems of de­cep­tion, syco­phancy, and stag­na­tion in con­ven­tional com­pa­nies is com­plex, but I’d sum­ma­rize it as fol­lows: cre­at­ing a cul­ture where ev­ery­one talks about mis­takes and im­prove­ments, and where the per­sonal/​pro­fes­sional bound­aries are bro­ken down.

This sounds vaguely cultish and shock­ing, and in­deed, the com­pa­nies pro­filed (like Bridge­wa­ter) are of­ten de­scribed as cults. Ke­gan ac­knowl­edges that their prac­tices are out­side most of our com­fort zones, but be­lieves that noth­ing in­side the range of what we think of as a nor­mal work­place will solve work­place dys­func­tions.

What dis­t­in­guishes the com­pa­nies pro­filed in the book is a lot of talk, about is­sues that would or­di­nar­ily be con­sid­ered too “per­sonal” for work. When some­one makes a mis­take, a DDO looks for the root cause, as you would in a kaizen sys­tem, but it won’t stop there — peo­ple will also ask what per­sonal or psy­cholog­i­cal is­sue caused the mis­take. Does this per­son have a ten­dency to­wards over­con­fi­dence that they need to work on? Were they afraid of look­ing bad? Do they need to learn to con­sider oth­ers’ feel­ings more?

It’s vuln­er­a­ble to be laid bare in this way, but, at least in the ideal of a DDO, ev­ery­one does it, from the in­terns to the CEO, to the point that peo­ple in­ter­nal­ize that hav­ing flaws and a per­sonal life is noth­ing to hide. Some peo­ple would find this hor­rifi­cally in­tru­sive, but oth­ers find it a re­lief.

I’ve never worked in a DDO, but I think I might like it; with enough man­dated trans­parency, I’d be forced to over­ride the temp­ta­tion to hide flaws and make my­self look bet­ter, and could fo­cus bet­ter on ac­tu­ally do­ing good work.

The cost, of course, is way more com­mu­ni­ca­tion about seem­ingly non-work-re­lated things. You’d be pro­cess­ing per­sonal stuff with cowork­ers all the time. The hope is that this is ac­tu­ally cheaper than the costs of the bad de­ci­sions made when you don’t have enough hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but it’s an em­piri­cal mat­ter whether that works out in prac­tice, and the au­thors don’t have data so far.