Bullshit jobs are usually seen as an absence of optimization: firms don’t get rid of their useless workers because that would require them to figure out who they are, and risk losing or demoralizing important people in the process. But alternatively, if bullshit jobs (and cover for bullshit jobs) are a favor to hand out, then they’re more like a form of executive compensation: my useless underlings owe me, and I will get illegible favors from them in return.
What predictions does the bullshit-jobs-as-compensation model make, that differ from the bullshit-jobs-as-lack-of-optimization model?
When I tried to inner sim the “bullshit jobs as compensation” model, I expected to see a very different world than I do see. In particular, I’d expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.
The problem being that the kind of person who wants a bullshit job is not typically the kind of person you’d necessarily want a favor from. One use for bullshit jobs could be to help the friends (or more likely the family) of someone who does “play the game.” This I think happens more often, but I still think the world would be very different if this was the main use case for bullshit jobs- In particular, I’d expect most bullshit jobs to be isolated from the rest of the company, such that they don’t have ripple effects. This doesn’t seem to be the case as many bullshit jobs exist in management.
When I inquired about the world I actually do see, I got several other potential reasons for bullshit jobs that may or may not fit the data better:
Bullshit jobs as pre-installed scapegoats: Lots of middle management might fit into this role. This could be viewed as a favor (I’ll give you a cushy job now in exchange for you throwing yourself on the sword when the time comes.) However, I think the predictive model is to view it in terms of the Gervais principle: The clueless middle managers don’t realize they’re being manipulated by the sociopaths.
Bullshit jobs as a way to make people feel important: Lets say you have a preinstalled scapegoat. You need to keep them happy enough that they’ll stay in their position and not ask too many questions. One way to do that for a certain type of person is to give them underlings. But if you gave them underlings with real jobs they could screw things up for the organization, so you give them underlings with bullshit jobs.
Another instance of this that I imagined might happen: Someone is really great at what they do (say they’re a 10x employee), but to feel important wants to be a manager. You know if you don’t promote them you’ll lose them, but you know they’ll be an awful manager. You promote them, give them a couple underlings with a bullshit job, and now they’re still only a 4x employee because they spend a lot of their time managing, but you still manage to squeeze a little bit of productivity out of the deal. This one I’m less sure about but its’ interesting because it turns the peter principle on its’ head.
Edit: As I continued to inner sim the above reasons, a few feedback loops began to become clear:
To be a proper scapegoat, your scapegoat has to seem powerful within the organization. But to prevent them from screwing things up, you can’t give them real power. This means, the most effective scapegoats have lots of bullshit jobs underneath them.
There are various levels of screwup. I might not realize I’m a scapegoat for the very big events above me, but still not want to get blamed for the very real things that happen on the level of organization I actually do run. One move I have is to hire another scapegoat who plays the game one level below me, install them as a manager, and then use them as a scapegoat. Then there’s another level at which they get blamed for things that happen on their level, and this can recurse for several levels of middle management.
Some of the middle managment installed as scapegoats might accidentally get hands on real power in the organization. Because they’re bad managers, they’re bad at figuring out what jobs are needed. This then becomes the “inefficiency” model you mentioned.
In particular, I’d expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.
Moral Mazes claims that this is exactly what happens at the transition from object-level work to management—and then, once you’re at the middle levels, the main traits relevant to advancement (and value as an ally) are the ones that make you good at coalitional politics, favor-trading, and a more feudal sort of loyalty exchange.
Do you think that the majority of direct management jobs are bullshit jobs? My direction is that especially the first level of management that is directly managing programmers is a highly important coordination position.