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 a failure occurs, 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.

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15 thoughts on “Book Recommendations: An Everyone Culture and Moral Mazes

  1. Very interesting takes on what sound like interesting books. I may read one of them, but I probably won’t implement what I learn if I do read them.

    “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?”
    When i read the above, I worry that it sounds like this would be difficult to do without doing something illegal. For example, if someone sees a problem but doesn’t speak up because they have impostor syndrome, where does that syndrome come from? If it comes from internalized oppression because they are a member of a protected class (for example something gender related), then talking about that could veer into saying that someone’s life history as impacted by a protected class is influencing the quality of the work they are doing today.

    If it were my job to manage a company’s exposure to legal risk, I’d be reluctant to sign off on that.

  2. The obvious question here is “why would this culture actually fix the underlying problem that leads to people being dishonest about their flaws?”

    Being dishonest about your flaws is a thing people do in an office environment because it has at least some degree of *effectiveness* at making you appear better than your coworkers and getting the promotions and raises you want.

    The obvious cynical defection to make in an environment where everyone is encouraged to be honest is to make up some petty flaws and hide the rest. Real vulnerability can’t exist without *justifiable* trust. In other words, you can’t just *tell* people you won’t punish them for honesty, you have to actually *do* that, even when they’re honest about some really bad stuff. And that, it turns out, is probably bad for business.

    I think Google has a culture that’s sort of like this, and while it does make things a bit better, there’s still plenty of politicking and covering-up, because that’s just the obvious thing to do to win points. And there’s also a fair amount of having to pay lots of money to keep on people whose honesty has revealed stuff that means they’re no longer profitable to Google to keep on; most companies can’t afford that kind of nonsense.

    • Is it bad for business though? You don’t have to fire everyone who makes any mistake — only for the most egregious or repeated ones. An employee might acknowledge a mistake in the hopes that, even though it’s a small black mark on his reputation, getting it dealt with quickly will prevent a much bigger black mark down the road. In other words, actually having aligned incentives with the company.

  3. I can speak from experience that doing some amount of DDO-style things definitely helps a lot with these types of things, and reduced their severity and how much damage they did on many levels, but did not fundamentally get rid of them. All of these things are still big problems. And DDO-style things create the problem at a new meta level, because you create the same dynamic *around the DDO process itself*. Thus, it becomes impossible to question the questioning, or the authorities in the questioning process, and everything reasserts itself.

    What *did* seem to work miracles, and get rid of *at least some categories of* these problems, was simple incentive correction. If hiding a mistake or problem is considered a crisis, you might get fired for hiding it style of offense even when the original issue was relatively small, people adapt and stop hiding things so much. It’s not a cureall. But it definitely helped. A certain amount of short-term actual *reward* for pointing out one’s own mistakes is big, too, even if one knows it does add to your mistake count in some important sense.

      • A common convention in corporate documentation is that the first time you use a term that will later be referred to by acronym you capitalize the phrase and give the acronym in parentheses imminently following the phrase. So the sentence from paragraph 1 would read
        “An Everyone Culture is an introduction to the idea of a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO), an attempt to fix those problems, plus some case studies of companies that implemented “deliberately developmental” practices.”

  4. In my experience, the cost of talking about seemingly non work related things is not that high.

    That said, if there is a system and there is a culture, it’s always possible to try to game the system and to signal that you’re aligned with the culture. There’s also pressure to conform, and we know diverse ways of thinking are good, so too much pressure to conform is bad, even if it’s pressure to conform to a relatively good set of cultural norms.

    I think a critical element of this kind of system is trust. Employees need to believe that their incentives are aligned with their managers’ and the company’s incentives. That means they have to trust their managers and the company leadership to assess their work competently and then reward them fairly. Now that I’m in a managerial position I spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of thing.

  5. The best of all in 2019 for you and your family Sarah!

    The concept of DDO simply seems to be a human centered, crystallized version of a lean start-up ideal. The features of DDO, to a varied degree of course, are natural characteristics of teams trying to better themselves, experience and/or value wise. However, these dynamics tend to stall with increased scale and depth of enterprises which snicker on competitiveness and erode trust. The lack of the latter also brings the idea of professionalism in question; I’d suggest reading the recent Aeon post https://aeon.co/ideas/why-a-market-model-is-destroying-the-safeguards-of-the-professions
    My initial thoughts on the effectiveness of DDO would be very much of the self-help books – the majority would jump on, consume insecurities of others to feel less judgmental about themselves and then mostly not push through to action (the degree of which may be influenced by the organizational incentives, though not substantial). Then again, the research would certainly aid in answering the question whether such external forces, be it culture/finance/xyz focused, could manipulate behaviors of such psychological weight. The punchline is clear – very few individuals are honest with themselves and break through their fears for showing vulnerability/insecurity for their own passions and ideal; what is to make them to expose themselves in such a manner when working at a job that for most folks, is undertaken solely for financial gain?

  6. This post seems, from the first half of Moral Mazes (it’s tough to get through), to be dramatically downplaying the degree of perverse behavior we’re observing. In a way that would do these managers proud!

    I wouldn’t say:
    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.

    I would instead say (again, this is based purely on the book):
    The basic problem is that in corporate life your only goal is to play political games to advance your career, and no one cares *at all* about anything but themselves. Anyone who cares about anything but themselves marks themselves as untrustworthy, and commits the gravest sin of all: Making others uncomfortable. The other marks of a good employee listed below are simply what an employee who cared only about their own advancement would do – no more and no less.

    Does that seem right?

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