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.
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.