How to Identify an Immoral Maze

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Pre­vi­ously in se­quence: Moloch Hasn’t Won, Perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Im­perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Does Big Busi­ness Hate Your Fam­ily?, What is Life in an Im­moral Maze?, Strip­ping Away the Pro­tec­tions, What is Suc­cess in an Im­moral Maze?

Im­moral mazes (here­after mazes), as laid out in the book Mo­ral Mazes, are toxic or­ga­ni­za­tions. Work­ing for them puts tremen­dous pres­sure on you to pri­ori­tize get­ting ahead in the or­ga­ni­za­tion over ev­ery­thing else. Mid­dle man­agers are par­tic­u­larly af­fected – they are pushed to sac­ri­fice not only all of their time, but also things such as their moral­ity, fam­ily and abil­ity to think clearly. Only those who go all-in do­ing this get ahead, and even most of them fail.

Even suc­cess­fully get­ting ahead is lit­tle con­so­la­tion.

Mazes ex­ert similar pres­sures on those who do busi­ness with them or work in non-man­age­rial roles, to a lesser but sub­stan­tial de­gree.

The best defense is to iden­tify mazes be­fore you agree to work for or do busi­ness with them, and choose to work or do busi­ness el­se­where. At a min­i­mum, one’s eyes should be open, and the costs in­volved must be fully fac­tored in be­fore mak­ing such de­ci­sions.

This makes it im­por­tant to figure out what parts of what or­ga­ni­za­tions are mazes, and to what ex­tent. This is hard to get ex­actly right.

What is eas­ier is us­ing sim­ple heuris­tics to get a good ap­prox­i­ma­tion, then keep­ing an eye out for and up­dat­ing on new ev­i­dence.

I offer seven heuris­tics, the first two of which will do the bulk of the work on their own. You benefit from the ‘right’ an­swer to all of them even ab­sent con­cerns about mazes, so they are good ques­tions to get into the habit of ask­ing.

1. How many lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy ex­ist?

Full mazes re­quire at least three lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy, with­out which one can­not have mid­dle man­age­ment.

Each level be­yond that makes things worse. The fourth and fifth lev­els both make things much worse.

With only one level, there’s noth­ing to worry about.

With only two lev­els, a boss and those who re­port to the boss, the boss has skin in the game, no boss caus­ing prob­lems for them, and not enough rea­son to re­ward bad out­comes.

With three lev­els, there are mid­dle man­agers in the sec­ond layer, so one should be wary. But things are un­likely to be too bad. No mid­dle man­ager has a boss or un­der­ling who is also a mid­dle man­ager. This means that in any in­ter­ac­tion be­tween non-equals ei­ther in­volves the head of the com­pany, or it in­volves some­one ‘on the line’ who doesn’t have any­one re­port­ing to them, and must deal with ob­ject-level re­al­ity. Either of them has rea­son to keep things grounded. Since there is only one per­son at the top, ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion in­cludes some­one who in­ter­acts reg­u­larly with ob­ject level re­al­ity.

With four lev­els, we start to have in­ter­ac­tions be­tween mid­dle man­agers in charge of each other. Th­ese dy­nam­ics start to get se­ri­ous, but ev­ery­one still in­ter­acts with some­one on the top or bot­tom.

At five lev­els, we have peo­ple who never in­ter­act di­rectly with ei­ther the boss or any­one deal­ing with the ob­ject level.

At six lev­els, those peo­ple in­ter­act with each other.

And so on.

Mean­while, the boss has less and less need or abil­ity to com­pre­hend the ob­ject level, and we get more and more prob­lems with lack of skin in the game, which is ques­tion two.

At least one of the cor­po­ra­tions in Mo­ral Mazes had more than twenty ranks. That is way, way too many. By that point, it would be sur­pris­ing if you weren’t doomed. I have ac­tual no idea how to have twenty ranks and keep things sane.

Note that those out­side the com­pany, such as in­vestors or reg­u­la­tors, seem like they should effec­tively count as a level un­der some cir­cum­stances, but not un­der oth­ers.

As a spot check, I looked back on the jobs I’ve had. This matches my ex­pe­rience.

Most im­pres­sive is that I can ob­serve what hap­pened when sev­eral of those jobs added new lay­ers of hi­er­ar­chy. This led in ev­ery case to trace­able ways to ad­di­tional maze-like be­hav­ior. In ev­ery case, that made life much worse for me and other em­ploy­ees, and hurt our pro­duc­tivity. In one case I was run­ning the com­pany at the time, and it still hap­pened.

I would be very wary of any or­ga­ni­za­tion that had four lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy. I would be pro­gres­sively more skep­ti­cal of any or­ga­ni­za­tion with more than that, to the point of as­sum­ing it was a maze un­til proven oth­er­wise.

2. Do peo­ple have skin in the game?

Skin in the game is a ro­bust defense against mazes, if it can be dis­tributed widely enough and in the right ways. That can be tough. There’s only 100% to­tal equity to go around.

One can only re­ward what can be ob­served or of­ten only what can be quan­tified and mea­sured. Some­thing about Good­hart’s Law, and so on. The prob­lem with lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy and mid­dle man­age­ment is in large part a prob­lem of in­abil­ity to provide skin in the game.

For suffi­ciently large or­ga­ni­za­tions, as de­scribed in Mo­ral Mazes, skin in the game is not so much spread thin as de­liber­ately de­stroyed. The suc­cess­ful keep enough mo­men­tum to run away from the con­se­quences of their prob­lems. This alone is fatal.

If an or­ga­ni­za­tion has solved these prob­lems for real, it likely isn’t a maze.

If an or­ga­ni­za­tion lacks skin in the game and also has many lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy, you’re al­most cer­tainly deal­ing with a maze.

If it lacks skin in the game but also lacks lev­els of hi­er­ar­chy, maze lev­els can differ. But also keep in mind that lack of skin in the game causes a whole host of prob­lems. Only some of those are the prob­lems of mazes. De­tailing these is­sues is be­yond the scope here, but be highly skep­ti­cal when­ever skin in the game is lack­ing.

3. Do peo­ple have soul in the game?

What’s bet­ter than hav­ing skin in the game? Hav­ing soul in the game. Car­ing deeply about the out­come for rea­sons other than money, or your own li­a­bil­ity, or be­ing po­ten­tially scape­goated. Car­ing for ex­is­ten­tial rea­sons, not com­mer­cial ones.

Soul in the game is in­com­pat­i­ble with mazes. Mazes will elimi­nate any­one with soul in the game. There­fore, if the peo­ple you work for have soul in the game, you’re safe. If you have it too, you’ll be a lot hap­pier, and likely do­ing some­thing worth­while. Things will be much bet­ter on most fronts.

It’s worth pri­ori­tiz­ing soul in the game, above and be­yond skin in the game.

4. How do peo­ple de­scribe their job when you ask?

Re­mem­ber this quote:

When man­agers de­scribe their work to an out­sider, they al­most always first say: “I work for [Bill James]” or “I re­port to [Harry Mills]” or “I’m in [Joe Bell’s] group,”* and only then pro­ceed to de­scribe their ac­tual work func­tions. (Lo­ca­tion 387, Quote 2)

You want them to say al­most any­thing else. Any­thing that does not make you re­coil in hor­ror a differ­ent way. Hope­fully some­thing worth­while and in­ter­est­ing. I don’t know how good this rule is, but I sus­pect it’s quite pow­er­ful.

5. Is there di­ver­sity of skill lev­els? Is ex­cel­lence pos­si­ble and re­warded?

The be­lief that all mid­dle man­agers have the same skills, and are all equally ca­pa­ble of do­ing any man­age­rial job aside from the poli­tics in­volved, is a lot of what makes mazes so bad. If there is no good rea­son to di­verge from stan­dard prac­tice, if ev­ery­body knows that you can­not do bet­ter, then any di­ver­gence is blame­wor­thy, and shows you are not do­ing your job. There’s no need to ask why, or what ad­van­tages it might have.

It also all but en­sures the wrong an­swer to the next ques­tion.

6. Is there slack?

A world with­out slack is not a place one wants to be. Mazes sys­tem­at­i­cally erase all slack. Slack is ev­i­dence of not be­ing fully com­mit­ted, and given that ev­ery­one’s skills are equal and com­pe­ti­tion is perfect, hold­ing any­thing back means los­ing even if un­de­tected.

7. Pay Attention

Sounds silly, but it works. Ob­serve peo­ple and what they do and how they do it. If you work in a maze for long enough, you’re not go­ing to shout it from the roof­tops, but ev­ery sen­tence you speak will re­flect it.

And as always, when peo­ple tell you who they are, be­lieve them.

Other Notes

Th­ese ques­tions do not differ­en­ti­ate be­tween cor­po­ra­tions, non-prof­its, gov­ern­ments, par­ties, clubs or other or­ga­ni­za­tional forms. That’s not a good in­di­ca­tor. Cor­po­ra­tions are only the origi­nal ob­served case.

Ask­ing how pro­posed or ex­pected changes will change the an­swers to these ques­tions is a good way to know if those changes will raise the maze level of an or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Like most puz­zles, there are mul­ti­ple solu­tions, and the pieces re­in­force each other. Most of the time, hard­core mazes will give alarm-bell level an­swers to all seven heuris­tics.

Are there any other good sim­ple heuris­tics?

Next is How to Work With Mo­ral Mazes, pro­vid­ing my best ad­vice in de­tail to those deal­ing with the threat of mazes on a per­sonal level.