What is Life in an Immoral Maze?

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Pre­vi­ously in se­quence: Moloch Hasn’t Won, Perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Im­perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Does Big Busi­ness Hate Your Fam­ily?

This post at­tempts to give a gears-level ex­pla­na­tion of maze life as ex­pe­rienced by a mid­dle man­ager in sys­tems with many lev­els of man­age­ment, as de­picted in Mo­ral Mazes.

The ‘maze level’ of cor­po­ra­tions differs wildly. Th­ese dy­nam­ics do not re­li­ably fully take over un­til you have many lev­els of man­age­ment. Ques­tions of what causes high maze lev­els will be dealt with in fu­ture sec­tions.

Again, if you have not yet done so, you are highly en­couraged to read or re­view Quotes from Mo­ral Mazes. I will not have the space here to even gloss over many im­por­tant as­pects.

An Im­moral Maze can be mod­eled as a su­per-perfectly com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket for man­age­ment ma­te­rial. All the prin­ci­ples of su­per-perfect com­pe­ti­tion are in play. The nor­mal bar­ri­ers to such com­pe­ti­tion have been stripped away. Too many ‘qual­ified’ man­agers com­pete for too few po­si­tions.

If an as­pirant who does not de­vote ev­ery­thing they have, and visi­bly sac­ri­fice all slack, to­wards suc­cess, they au­to­mat­i­cally fail. Those who do make such sac­ri­fices mostly fail any­way, but some of them “suc­ceed”. We’ll see later what suc­cess has in store for them.

The Lifestyle of a Mid­dle Manager

At the man­age­rial and pro­fes­sional lev­els, the road be­tween work and life is usu­ally open be­cause it is difficult to re­fuse to use one’s in­fluence, pa­tron­age, or power on be­half of an­other reg­u­lar mem­ber of one’s so­cial co­terie. It there­fore be­comes im­por­tant to choose one’s so­cial col­leagues with some care and, of course, know how to drop them should they fall out of or­ga­ni­za­tional fa­vor. (Mo­ral Mazes, Lo­ca­tion 884, Quote #117)

We have this idea that there is work and there is not-work, and once one leaves work one is en­gaged in not-work dis­tinct from work. We also have this idea that there are things that are off limits even at work, like sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

For a per­son with­out any­one re­port­ing to them, who is ‘on the line’ in the book’s par­lance, this can be sus­tained.

For those in mid­dle man­age­ment who want to suc­ceed, that’s not how things work. Every­thing you are is on the table. You’d bet­ter be all-in.

You will in­creas­ingly choose your friends to help you win. You will in­creas­ingly choose your hob­bies, and what you eat, and your poli­tics, and your house, and your church, and your spouse and how many kids you have, to help you win. And of course, you will choose your (lack of) moral­ity.

In the end, you will sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing, and I mean ev­ery­thing, that you value, in any sense, to win.

If the job re­quires you to move, any­where in the world, you’ll do it, drag­ging your nu­clear fam­ily along and forc­ing all of you to leave be­hind ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one you know. Other­wise, you’re just not se­ri­ous about suc­cess.

Slack will definitely not be a thing.

Your time is es­pe­cially vuln­er­a­ble.

Higher-level man­agers in all the cor­po­ra­tions I stud­ied com­monly spend twelve to four­teen hours a day at the office. (Lo­ca­tion 1156, Quote #120, Mo­ral Mazes)

This is the re­sult of to­tal com­pe­ti­tion be­tween pro­duc­ers – the man­agers are effec­tively ri­val pro­duc­ers try­ing to sell them­selves as the product.

The mar­ket for man­agers is seen, by those who make the de­ci­sions, as highly effi­cient.

If man­agers were seen as wildly differ­ent in terms of tal­ent, in­tel­li­gence, or some other abil­ity that helped get things done, that would help a lot. You could af­ford to be a lit­tle quirky, to hold on to the things you value most, with­out los­ing the game en­tirely. Your suc­cess will be in­fluenced by your per­son­al­ity and ded­i­ca­tion, but noth­ing like solely de­ter­mined by them.

Alas, the per­cep­tion in these mazes is ex­actly the op­po­site.

See, once you are at a cer­tain level of ex­pe­rience, the differ­ence be­tween a vice-pres­i­dent, an ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent, and a gen­eral man­ager is neg­ligible. It has rel­a­tively lit­tle to do with abil­ity as such. Peo­ple are all good at that level. They wouldn’t be there with­out that abil­ity. So it has lit­tle to do with abil­ity or with busi­ness ex­pe­rience and so on. All have similar lev­els of abil­ity, drive, com­pe­tence, and so on. What hap­pens is that peo­ple per­ceive in oth­ers what they like—op­er­at­ing styles, lifestyles, per­son­al­ities, abil­ity to get along. Now these are all very sub­jec­tive judg­ments. And what hap­pens is that if a per­son in au­thor­ity sees some­one else’s guy as less com­pe­tent than his own guy, well, he’ll always per­ceive him that way. And he’ll always pick—as a re­sult—his own guy when the chance to do so comes up. (Lo­ca­tion 1013, Quote #87, Mo­ral Mazes)

It is known that most peo­ple ‘don’t have what it takes’ to be a man­ager. This is clearly true on many lev­els. Only one of them is a will­ing­ness to fully get with the pro­gram.

Once you get sev­eral lev­els up, the de­fault as­sump­tion is that ev­ery­one is smart enough, and com­pe­tent enough. That the ob­ject-level is a fully level play­ing field. The idea that some­one can just be bet­ter at do­ing the ac­tual job doesn’t parse for them.

All re­main­ing differ­ences are about nega­tive se­lec­tion, about how hard you want it and are will­ing to sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing, or about how well you play poli­ti­cal games. Nor do they much care whether you suc­ceed at your job, any­way.

Some ad­di­tional sup­port­ing quotes on that fol­low. A large por­tion of the quotes re­in­force this per­spec­tive.

If you can’t work smart, work hard:

When asked who gets ahead, an ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent at Weft Cor­po­ra­tion says: The guys who want it [get ahead]. The guys who work. You can spot it in the first six months. They work hard, they come to work ear­lier, they leave later. They have sug­ges­tions at meet­ings. They come into a busi­ness and the busi­ness picks right up. They don’t go on coffee breaks down here [in the base­ment]. You see the pa­rade of peo­ple go­ing back and forth down here? There’s no rea­son for that. I never did that. If you need coffee, you can have it at your desk. Some peo­ple put in time and some peo­ple work. (Lo­ca­tion 992, Quote 29, Mo­ral Mazes)

But ev­ery­one at this level works hard, which was more about show­ing you work hard than the re­sults of the work, be­cause con­crete out­comes don’t much mat­ter:

As one man­ager says: “Per­son­al­ity spells suc­cess or failure, not what you do on the field.” (Lo­ca­tion 1383, Quote 33, Mo­ral Mazes)

It’s not like there were ever ob­jec­tive crite­ria:

Man­agers rarely speak of ob­jec­tive crite­ria for achiev­ing suc­cess be­cause once cer­tain cru­cial points in one’s ca­reer are passed, suc­cess and failure seem to have lit­tle to do with one’s ac­com­plish­ments. (Lo­ca­tion 917, Quote 42, Mo­ral Mazes)

Which makes sense, be­cause if ev­ery­one is the same, then con­crete out­comes are just luck:

As­sum­ing a ba­sic level of cor­po­rate re­sources and man­age­rial know-how, real eco­nomic out­come is seen to de­pend on fac­tors largely be­yond or­ga­ni­za­tional or per­sonal con­trol. (Lo­ca­tion 1592, Quote 46, Mo­ral Mazes)

I am supremely con­fi­dent that this per­spec­tive is com­pletely bonkers. There is huge differ­en­tial be­tween bet­ter and worse no mat­ter how high up you go or how ex­treme your filters have already been. But what mat­ters here is what the man­agers be­lieve. Not what is true. Ta­lent or brilli­ance won’t save you if no one be­lieves it can ex­ist. If no­ticed it will only back­fire:

Strik­ing, dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of any sort, in fact, are dan­ger­ous in the cor­po­rate world. One of the most dam­ag­ing things, for in­stance, that can be said about a man­ager is that he is brilli­ant. This al­most in­vari­ably sig­nals a judg­ment that the per­son has pub­li­cly as­serted his in­tel­li­gence and is per­ceived as a threat to oth­ers. What good is a wiz­ard who makes his col­leagues and his cus­tomers un­com­fortable? (Lo­ca­tion 1173, Quote 88, Mo­ral Mazes)

How do things get so bad?

That’s the ques­tion we’ll look at an as­pect of next post. From here I an­ti­ci­pate 3-5 day gaps be­tween posts.

Ques­tions that will be con­sid­ered later, worth think­ing about now, in­clude: How does this per­sist? If things are so bad, why aren’t things way worse? Why haven’t these cor­po­ra­tions fallen apart or been com­peted out of busi­ness? Given they haven’t, why hasn’t the en­tire econ­omy col­lapsed? Why do reg­u­lar peo­ple, as­pirant man­agers and oth­er­wise, still think of these man­ager po­si­tions as the ‘good jobs’ as op­posed to pick­ing up pitch­forks and torches?