Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Three Aspects Of Corporations That Will Surprise You

The Corporation: The Real American Idol. Chapter 3 Part 1

Is a thunderstorm evil?  You might think it is if you don’t understand how it works.  The noise, the lighting, the destructive power can be frightening and dangerous.  Is a thunderstorm good?  You might think so, given the life-giving rain.  When faced with the unknown, the mind naturally creates a story to explain what is happening.  And when we don’t have all of the information, our imagination fills in the blanks. Of course a thunderstorm is neither good nor evil, it just is.

And so it goes with corporations, they are neither good nor evil.   A corporation can do “good” things like donating money to flood victims, or “bad” things like polluting a river.  But good and bad are labels added by people, and are not drivers of the company decisions.  For example, the oil company Texaco donated money for 63 years to allow radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera (a good thing), but the sponsorship started to help repair its reputation that damaged by its support for Nazi Germany (a bad thing)[1].

So what is a corporation?

In the words of Chief Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme court, “a corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of the law.[2]”  It is striking to me how this definition of the corporation resembles following definition of a pagan idol.

Reverend Carlton Wynne of the Westminster Theological Seminary writes that idols in the Bible have personhood, are thought to have power, and have the ability to both accept sacrifices and bless supplicants[3].  Corporations meet all three of these criteria, except of course that corporations actually do have power.  And as for the third criteria, employees regularly make sacrifices for the company, and receive bonuses, promotions, and recognition as rewards.

Of course the primary definition of idolatry that I gave has to do with the adoption of a relative value system.  Do you think this definition fits corporations as well?

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[1] Corporate Social Strategy: Stakeholder Engagement and Competitive Advantage

By Bryan W. Husted, David Bruce Allen Cambridge University Press (2010)  p 141-142.  Google eBook.

[2] Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Retrieved July 29, 2012

[3]   Is Idolatry the New Sin? By Carlton Wynne Reformation  November 2009. Retrieved most recently July 29, 2012

Five Lessons The Olympics Can Teach You About The Corporate World

Five Lessons From The Olympics for Your Worklife

Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge by Jon Curnow via Flickr cc

The Corporation: The Real American Idol Chapter 3 Part 2

Jordyn Wieber, after training for most of her life, and getting the fourth best score in the overall gymnastics competition, is not able to compete in the final.  I can hardly stand it.  I am a huge sports fan, and I am fascinated by the psychological aspects of the game – who can outperform under pressure, and who will choke?  So when I heard that Wieber was out, I watched the replay waiting for the choke that never came.

She made a few mistakes, but she was good.  And now she is out, because the rules say that no country can have more than two competitors in the final.  There has been a lot said about coaching and scoring decisions that may have cost her, but her coach, John Geddert, said it best.

She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating. She has waited her entire career for this. She is happy for her teammates and disappointed that she doesn’t get (to) move on.”

Wieber’s failure to advance has lessons for those of us navigating a career in the corporate world.

Lesson 1: There are only so many spots at the top

Weiber’s performance was great – fourth overall, but the rules allow only two from a given country.  The same holds true in the corporate world.  There are fewer and fewer positions at higher levels in the company, especially in management.  And being good is not enough.

Lesson 2: No everyone who is worthy gets to move up

There were 98 women who qualified to compete in gymnastics in London, most of whom knew ahead of time that they had little chance to make the final 24, much less compete for a medal.  But these women were the best in their respective countries, and trained hard to get where they were.  Jordyn Wieber was not the only girl who scored well enough to make the final round but was prevented because two teammates scored better.    Three others also missed the finals because they were third in their country:  Anastasia Grishina (RUS, 12th place); Jennifer Pinches (GBR, 21st place); Yao Jinnan (CHN, 22nd place).  These four women need to abide by an arbitrary set of rules.

Lesson 3: The Rules are not designed with you in mind

The olympic organizers put together a set of rules that they thought would give the best overall event. And while Americans in particular will miss Weiber, the event will go on.  But the consequences for Weiber are potentially huge, perhaps millions of dollars in lost endorsements over the next few years.  Tim Daggett said it was inconceivable that Weiber would not be in the finals, especially when she made no major errors.  In my career, it was inconceivable to some people that I would be laid off, given everything I had accomplished at the company,  But I was.  (I didn’t really mind, and had a new job within weeks, but that is a story for another day.)

Lesson 4: Sometimes small things outside your control can make a big difference

Was Wieber underscored on the floor and beam as some have suggested?  Did the coaches put her at a disadvantage by not having her go last?  Maybe, probably.  If she hadn’t made a few small mistakes, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  But this time maybe it did.  Unfortunately, that is the way things go sometimes.  Sometimes at work, a minor mistake comes at exactly the wrong time.  The corporate world can be  a “what have you don’t for me lately” place.  After years of hard work, if the mistake happens just when that rare window of opportunity opens, it can cost.

Lesson 5: Sacrifice is a certainty, victory is a rarity.

For those who choose to work extreme hours, sacrifice of family time is a certainty.   For an Olympic athlete, the sacrifice brings the opportunity for greatness. But there can be only one Olympic champion.  As I wrote earlier, the experience of being there is a victory for most.  (And with 150,000 condoms distributed in the Olympic Village, being there seems to be plenty of rewards for showing up.)

When I first started working at Affymetrix, everyone kept congratulating me for being hired, as if it was privilege to be there.  And given how hot the company was at the time, I can understand where that was coming from.  It was perceived as an opportunity for greatness.  By business standards, I certainly won the Gold a few years later when my product had a monster year.  I got big accolades  and a very big bonus.  I had sacrificed big, and won big.  But unlike the Olympics, the competition did not end.  There were more goals, more numbers to make, and a perceived need for more sacrifice.

There was a great little segment on the broadcast tonight about Missy Franklin, seventeen year old swimmer whose family did not move or hire a famous coach.  She even stayed on her high school swim team.  Sacrifice?  I’m sure there was plenty.  But it was within boundaries her family set, and not according to standards suggested by other people.

The outcome?  She won the Gold in the 100 backstroke.

You might also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, the first post in my blog book Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life.

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Want Better Work-Life Balance? Start With Understanding.

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4

An important step for achieving work life balance is to understand the nature of the institution you are working for. defines a corporation as follows: An association of individuals, created by law, having a continuous existence independent of its members, and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its membersLets look at the four key ideas in more depth.  Each one has a significant impact on how individuals behave.

Association of individuals:  When a group of people are together, it is natural for a culture to form.  Culture provides the norms of acceptable behavior, and is a huge influence on how we act at work, which can spill over into the rest of our life. I will return to corporate culture later in the chapter.

Created by law: Ultimately, what a corporation can and cannot do is defined by local, state, federal and international law.  How often corporations stay within the law and how often they push is a matter of debate.  A simple example is minimum wage  – depending on where someone is working, his or her minimum pay is a function of local law.  A company may choose to pay more for a variety of reasons, but it isn’t required to.

Continuous existence independent of its members: Would it surprise you to learn that one of the first corporations in the world was a copper mine in Sweden that operated from at least the year 1080 until 1992?  It did me. The business was set up to distinct from its founding members, and it certainly was successful outliving them.  Key implication: a company doesn’t need any particular individual to survive.

Powers and liabilities distinct from members: A corporation can enter contracts, be sued, and in some cases be held criminally liable in a distinct and separate way from its employees or investors.  Many corporations provided limited liability for its investors, meaning that no money beyond the initial investment was at risk.  The structure of corporate ownership has a big impact on the behavior of the people who work there.  We’ll come back to this.

Again as a simple example, I used to get my paycheck directly from a company bank account, and not from an individual’s bank account.  Of course a company cannot issue a check (or do anything else) without an actual person to do the work.  This leads to many circumstances where a person is acting or speaking in the name of the company. Not a problem in and of itself,  until we forget that the company isn’t actually alive…

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Twitter NBC Olympics Flap Torches Boundaries Of Free Speech

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4: 

At the end of the last post, I was discussing circumstances when a person has to speak in the name of the company.  This is not a problem, until that speech starts to conflict with your internal value system.  The whole issue of speech gets tricky pretty fast, because a company routinely expects an employee not to publically disclose things that would be damaging to the company.

I asked many people I interviewed if they were ever in a situation where they had to make a trade off between being straight with a customer and protecting the company.  Here is a typical answer, this one from “Matthew,” a 20-year software employee, and a Buddhist.  “I do that every day.  I deal with customer issues that are unresolvable, or 18 months in the future.  We are encouraged to be relatively straight with them and also to not bad mouth the company.  As a representative of the company, we have a certain obligation.  It’s of it is why you get the paycheck.  I have had 1 or 2 situations that had to do with directly lying to customer.  It came back and caused a huge headache.”

Matthew’s last point is worth elaboration.  Lying to customers is often a bad business strategy, but the criteria for what speech is permissible varies greatly between company cultures.  Which brings us to the Twitter Olympics flap.  Twitter first suspended and reinstated the account of Guy Adams, a news correspondent who shared the corporate email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel.  (More details on the story available here.)  The key point for now is that, in Twitter’s own words, “there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter.”  I love the name of this section on the website, “Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter.”  Boundaries is a wonderful word.  And what sets the boundaries of behavior?  In my opinion it is values.

What are the values of your company, and how do they impact speech by employees and executives?

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Learn To See The Difference Between Dedication and Excess Company Devotion

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part  5

In his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” philosopher Alain De Botton illustrates how idolatry and non-idolatry both exist in the English company United Biscuits.  He describes the development, marketing and manufacturing of “The Moment,” a round chocolate covered biscuit designed to address the yearning of low-income mothers for more “me-time.[i]” (You can see an ad for Premium Indulgance McVitie’s Moments here.)

Without using the word “idolatry” he describes a corporate office where employees are motivated to surrender their lives/time to the ideal of helping the mothers in order to create the product.  According to De Botten, “the leaders at the biscuit company harboured no doubt as to which divinity they were worshipping.”   Even the investors would “genuflect before pastry.[ii]”  There were “no jokes at any biscuits expense.”  He goes as far as to “wish a plague on the house of biscuits so its directors might tremble before the right gods.”

It’s easy for an outsider like De Botton to poke fun at the people working in marketing and the corporate office because he hasn’t walked in their shoes.  From the inside, it seems very natural, especially when most people around you are doing the same thing.

But after initially opining the triviality and wasted labor going into making a sugary snack, De Botten gets a glimpse of the economic realities that drive a business.  He visits the factory in Belgium where the Moment is manufactured.  Most of the other factories in the area have been shut down, and unemployment is rampant.  The plant manager is extremely dedicated to his job and his employees.  Although the company has enjoyed a number of years of profit, it remains vulnerable to a fierce competitor and changing market conditions.  A change in the balance sheet could lead its owner, the Blackstone group, to close the factory.  Jobs in marketing that are initially viewed as meaningless and trivial, are recast in a new light – a fight for subsistence.  A change in manufacturing productivity or a failed marketing campaign could lead to a dramatically lower quality of life for the employees.  They live in a world where it is understood that machines will replace people in the relentless drive for cost savings.

Somewhere along the way, a line is crossed between being a professional, dedicated to your job, and surrendering weekends and evenings to the company.  Once I realized there was a  line, it was easier to regain control of my life.

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[i] The Pleasures and Sorrows Of Work by Alain De Botton.  Vintage (2010) p. 81

[ii] Ibid p. 82

The Quick and Dirty Way To Learn Your Company Culture

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 6

The writer David Foster opened his 2005 Kenyon Commencement address with this story: an older fish said to two younger fish “Morning boys.  How’s the water?”  After he swam away, one fish looked at the other and said “What the hell is water?[i]”  I love the story, because it captures a truism – we don’t notice something we are immersed in.  Corporate culture is the water of corporate life.

Corporate culture is defined as the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation.[ii]  We used to grill new employees about our products to get an outside perspective before they absorbed the biases of our organization.  And I think a big part of the stress of a new job is learning all of the unwritten rules of “the way things are done here.”  Here is a trick to learn the new culture quickly: ask to hear stories.

In their book “In Search of Excellence,” Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that great companies have strong values, which are transmitted not through “written procedures” but through “stories, myths, legends and metaphors.[iii]”  This rings true for me, based both on my own experience and from stories I heard while conducting interviews for the book.  For example, when I asked about company values, people started talking about the bullet points in the employee handbook, and were quick to point out that no one paid attention to them.  But when I asked for stories, I quickly learned what a company stood for.

At one company, there was a story about the sales rep who drove an instrument across Europe during the Christmas shutdown to complete the sale.  He even got the customer to unlock the building and take delivery so that the company could recognize the revenue.  This story was told more than once at company-wide meetings, and reminded employees an important lesson about the company values – do what it takes to make the numbers.  Of course the sales rep got a commission check, and it could be argued that he was simply acting in his own self-interest.

But self-interest certainly was not a factor in a story I heard from a former employee of Amersham.   a company in the UK that sold radioactive labels for biomedical research in the 80s and 90s. What does this story say about Amersham values? “Something went wrong with the [nuclear] reactor and the people on the night shift had to run into the reactor to get some stuff [so that it could ship to the customer on time.]  They got 10 times the dose they legally should have. … It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by ‘oh we’ve go to do a good job.’”  The Amersham alum laughed fondly as he told me the story.  It was clear that the story was told often when the beer began to flow, and is the type of myth that helps propagate company values.

What are the stories, myths and legends at your company, and how do they guide how you make decisions?

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[i] Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005 retrieved August 5, 2012.; David Foster Wallace, The Guardian, Friday 19 September 2008 retreived August 3, 2012


[iii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 282.

What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?

McKinsey 7S Model

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 7 – UPDATED 8/10

As we have seen in the previous chapters, idolatry goes beyond the literal definition of statue worship to include excessive devotion and/or blind adoration for an entity, idea, or force of nature.  Moreover, this “idol worship” brings with it adoption of a value system other than the universal value system espoused by the Golden Rule*. (More on Universal Values here.)  Value systems are important because they define the accepitble boundaries of human behavior.  Corporate idolatry, then, has something to do with the adoption of a value system that permits a different set of behaviors than those permitted by The Golden Rule.

In the corporate world, the whole concept of values gets muddy because many corporations have a written set of positive “values” that frankly are more slogan than substance[i].  If you are wondering “What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?” look at what people do, not what they say. True values are what drive actual behavior, and they can be positive or negative. I find the McKinsey 7S framework particularly relevant model for organizational behavior.  It categorizes 7 elements that together categorize a company.  (See the image).  Shared values are placed in the center because they touch and define the boundaries of all other aspects of the business, just as personal values touch and define the boundaries of behavior in a person.  One of the biggest implications of 7S is that real change in an organization will not happen unless the shared values of the company change.  Let me give you an example.

I interviewed multiple people from a Silicon Valley company about its transition a few years ago as its revenue surpassed $250 million dollars annually.  The company had become large enough that the ad-hoc decision making was no longer effective, and product development was impeded by political infighting.  The company sought to solve the problem through systems and staff.  It hired a consulting company to deploy a new product development governance system.  The system worked beautifully for a year – the product launches were streamlined, and groundbreaking.  Customers were happy, revenues were through the roof, and the company was considered best in class by Wall Street.

But it didn’t last.  The executive running product development was demoted, and soon left the company.  Within a year or two product development once again political and ineffective, and revenues suffered.  Why did this happen?  From the perspective of someone who was caught in the trenches at the time, it made no sense and wasn’t rational. In the context of shared values, it does.

The values of the organization, (propagated by the founder/CEO) did not reward operational issues, or believe in customer feedback.  The CEO had a certain vision of the world, and thought development resources should be concentrated on pushing the core technology, as opposed to the usability features requested by customers.  And his vision was shared by a significant portion of the executive team, who were hired and promoted for that very reason.  There was a mythical belief that all the company needed to do was to create more powerful hardware and the customers would love it.

In summary, there was a disconnect between the company’s shared values and the new process.  The shared values won. 

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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* Treat others as you would like to be treated in a similar circumstance.

[i] What Do Corporate Values Really Mean? Published on February 7, 2010 by Ray Williams in Wired for Success retrieved August 12, 2012

When Do Shared Values Become a Competitive Advantage?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol Part 8

In the last post, I used the McKinsey 7S model to explain the importance of shared company values to corporate culture.  Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” introduced the 7S model to the broader business community when it was first published in 1982.  Peters argues (as do many others) that strong company values give a competitive business advantage.  The top companies “create broad, uplifting, shared culture,” which allows them to  “ extract extraordinary contributions from very large numbers of people” because they share “ a sense of highly valued purpose.[i]”  In other words, when people really believe in what they are doing, they work harder.

This rings true for me.  People I interviewed felt that working in the Biotech industry is “motivating in itself” because of the direct connection to improving human health.  I was, however, surprised to learn that people in the computer industry find “solving customer problems” to be an analogous type of motivation.

When people described their best work experiences, often they pointed to a time when everyone in the company was aligned around a clear set of goals.  Notice the emotion-laden words as a research VP describes her best work experiences.

There were stages in my job where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  I thought about what made it good.   I was really clear in my scientific heart we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew as my training as a scientist, and the company had resources that really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.

Shared values have an additional benefit on the practical level – they facilitate decision making.  According to Peters, the Excellent companies did not need detailed procedures because “people way down the line know what they are supposed to do in most situations because the handful of guiding values is crystal clear.” In contrast, Peters sites the difficulty of making decisions at a large company put together by a series of mergers.  “The top people are inundated with trivia because there are no cultural norms.”  Underperforming companies like this can also have a strong culture, but the focus tends to be on politics or “the numbers,” rather than on people or products.[ii] Peters argues that these companies do not have strong values.  I disagree – there are strong values, but the values are pointed in a different direction.

What differentiates the values of the companies classified as Excellent when compared to the lower performing companies?  The Excellent companies put people first.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 51.

[ii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 76.

Chick-Fil-A’s “Golden Rule Approach To Business”

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 9

In the previous post, I argued that companies that incorporate elements of people-first values into their culture have a competitive advantage.  In his book The Loyalty Effect, Frederick Reichheld, head of Bain Consulting’s loyalty practice, and inventor of the Net Promoter Score, has built a career showing that businesses that put people first have better financial returns, at least in certain industries.  Reishheld argues that often a loyalty culture, i.e. one that values long term relationships with employees, customers, and investors is a productive business strategy.  For example, he shows that State Farm Insurance has an advantage over its competitors because it has found ways to retain agents longer, and these older agents bring in more business[i].

Ironically (given the current controversy), The Loyalty Effect paints a very favorable view of Chick-Fil-A for its people-first values, especially with regard to the way it compensates managers and employees in a way that encourages low-turnover.  He goes so far as to say that Chick-Fil-A’s takes a “Golden Rule approach to business.” He calls the founding CEO Truett Cathy (father of current CEO Dan Cathy) “so earnest a Christian that all Chick Fil A stores are closed on Sundays which makes their financial success all the more impressive.[ii]”  I agree with Reishheld’s further observation, that being closed may be an advantage for attracting talent that doesn’t want to work 7 days a week.  I would add that because the Sunday closure is a global company rule, no one person can gain competitive advantage for putting in the extra hours on a Sunday.

Reishheld argues that the financial advantages of a loyalty culture are not universal – it depends very much on the type of industry.  “Commodity suppliers like oil companies and certain high-tech businesses where technological breakthroughs can overwhelm customer relationships are examples of companies were loyalty economics can make a difference, but probably not a decisive difference.[iii]

This resonates with me big time.  In the genomics industry, where I worked, the dollars followed the latest technology, and seemed to be largely independent of how well those companies treated either their customers or employees.  In fact, I think the technology superiority bred a certain arrogance, which came back to haunt the companies when the next technology came down the road.

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[i] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 127-128.

[ii] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 111  It is unfortunate that Cathy’s people-first values have a common shortcoming.  In his mind, they seem to apply only to certain people.

[iii] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 306

What Is The Impact of Short-Term Investors On Everyday Business Decisions?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol part 10

In the last post, I discussed the values of Chick-Fil-A, a private company whose corporate values reflect the Cathy family’s interpretation of Christian values.  In his book The Loyalty Effect, Frederick Reishheld explains the impact of company ownership on its culture.  Public companies are much more prone to short term, numbers-based decision making than private ownership.  “The average public company in the United States now suffers investor churn of more than 50% per year.”[i]  In other words, half of a companies stock will be bought and sold in less than 12 months, and those owners only care about short term results since they will not be owners a year from now.

Such transient corporate owners are in a position to demand changes that increase short-term profits.  For example, layoffs and cuts to R&D spending are positive for the balance sheet, but may or may not be the correct prescription for long-term growth.[i]

It is against this headwind of numbers-based drivers that each of us in the corporate world must contend as we make decisions day to day.  Sound like a stretch?  Not to “Buzz” a former HR VP.

I came home after a layoff of hundreds and hundreds of people.  4th round.  I told my wife I feel like a collaborator in a Nazi concentration camp.  We could have made other choices, like a 15% pay cut and lay off half as many people.  ‘You can’t do that, blab la bla.’  I got sick of that moral choice of depriving people of their jobs, and being in charge of doing it.

Buzz was operating at the intersection of his people-first value system and the company imperative to save money.  I am not in a position to judge whether this cost savings was “necessary” for the survival of the company, but in many cases it is.  Layoffs are an unpleasant reality of the business world.  I think Buzz was uncomfortable because he felt they were excessive.  The answer for him was to leave that company and find another environment.  Another company may have elected to follow his preferred approach of a salary cut, as Hewlett-Packard did a few years ago.[ii]

This is a theme we will see again and again in the book – much of what happens in the corporate world is beyond your power to control.  Once you accept this, you will be in a better position to find a solution that works for you. And no, it doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the corporate world.

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[i] The Loyalty Effect:  the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value. By Frederick Reichheld.  Harvard business School Press (1996) p. 153

[ii] HP to cut salaries as profits decline; CEO takes hit, too. Hurd to take 20% pay cut as Hewlett-Packard looks to lower costs after weak Q1, By Patrick Thibodeau . February 19, 2009. Retrieved August 14, 2012.

Noogler or Mini-Me? Who Will Thrive In Your Company’s Culture?

Picture from B roll

Noogler in New York Office

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol part 11

Who gets ahead in the corporate world?  How often is it the smartest, most qualified person, and how often is it someone picked due to connections or politics?  Of course it’s not an either or, but the higher someone goes in the company, the more the soft skills matter. One person’s style may work very well in one company, and be a flop in another.  As important as it is to learn to “flex your style” I think it equally important to understand how inflexible corporate culture can be, so you can find the right fit for you.

So how does a particular culture evolve?  It starts with the founders, and is propagated through continuing hires over time.  Google, for example, is extremely deliberate about the type of people they are looking for, and has built an interview process looking to find “Googleyness.”

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.[i]

New hires (aka Nooglers) go through a specific series of steps to become acclimated to Google, which sometimes even wearing a fraternity pledge style hat.

While Google takes great pains to foster an anti-hierarchical culture, that is not always the case in the corporate world.  Many managers are looking for the Mini-Me.  Mini-Me was a character in the Austin Powers movies, a clone of the villain Dr. Evil.  Mini Me is a favorite, because he rarely speaks and just mimics the expressions of Dr. Evil.  Funny stuff, and I laughed when a senior manager used the analogy to describe the “big boss.”  In her words

Within a business unit, there were favorites based on behavior [that come from the] guy at the top.  If you fit what he liked, you did well.  He didn’t appreciate diversity.  He wanted the Mini Me, everyone [to be] like him exactly.

Whether your company is looking for its version of the Googler, or allows pockets of Mini-Me, the general point is the same – a corporate culture will select for a certain kind of person, perhaps more accurately a certain kind of behavior.

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Corporate Idolatry Is Not The Same As Business Ethics

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 12

As I wrote earlier in the book, idolatry carries a strong negative connotation because it is considered one of the worst sins. According to traditional Judaism, for example, idolatry is considered as bad as murder or incest.  I think some people recoil when I use the term corporate idolatry because they work for a good company, and see themselves as making ethical decisions at work.  So let me spend a moment on business ethics to explain how they do and do not correlate with idolatry.

According to the business ethics literature, an unethical behavior is one that violates widely accepted (societal) moral norms.  This usually covers behaviors like theft, fraud, and lying to customers. And from Chapter 2, what is the most widely held standard of right and wrong?  The Golden Rule, found in religions and philosophies from all over the world.  (For more, see The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.)

So based on all of this, I think its fair to say that if someone consistently makes unethical work decisions, they are following a value system that violates the Golden Rule and are therefore committing idolatry.

But there is a class of behavior that is not unethical that I still consider corporate idolatry – chronic overwork, particularly chronic overwork by choice.

What happens to people who are chronically overworked?  They more frequently make mistakes, have higher rates of injury, have higher rates of depression, and lower overall life satisfaction.[i]   In other words, chronic overwork is very unhealthy, and violates The Rule Of Self Preservation, which makes it another form of idolatry.

Statistics aside, if you talk to someone about a time when they were working too much, they describe a stressful, unhappy life.  I asked “Elaine” a former general manager of a high profile business division what her life was like when the business was struggling in the market. “It was like hell.  I don’t know any other way to put it.”

Hell, interesting choice of word.

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[i] Questions and Answers about OVERWORK: A Sloan Work and Family Research Network Fact Sheet. (Last Updated May 2009).

Did Tom Peters Warn Us Of The Danger Of Corporate Idolatry?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 13

In his article “What Is So Terrible About Idolatry?” Rabbi Tzvi Freeman connects a culture of idolatry to the dangers of hierarchy.  “[In the pagan world] Rulers found that a good mix of secret knowledge and convenient mythology could be an instrument of power over the populace; that by controlling the flow of knowledge they were able to hold the people in awe and obedience.”

Leadership guru Tom Peters also wrote of the dangers of hierarchy in his book In Search of Excellence. Peters found that the “Excellent” companies had strong central values brought the organization cohesion.  Peters rightly points out that people crave meaning in their lives, and a company that can provide its employees meaning will motivate them to work harder. (For more, see this post.)

But Peters also recognizes the danger and downside of this dynamic for individual employees.  “So strong is the need for meaning in fact that most people will yield a fair degree of latitude or freedom to institutions that give it to them.” He goes on to argue that the unscrupulous will use the drive for meaning as a means to exert power for its own sake.[i]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that everyone in company management abuses their power and is only in it for the money.  And I’m also not arguing that everyone else is caught up in the company mystique. But at the same time, we cannot pretend that those dynamics don’t exist.

Learning to recognize the motivations of the people you work with will be covered in the next chapter in great detail.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p 77-78

Why You Shouldn’t Let the Company Provide Your Moral Compass

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 14

Let me be clear: I think corporations are fantastic at creating goods and services – they enlist cooperation on a level not possible with any other system.  However, even Adam Smith, who coined the term “The Invisible Hand Of the Market” understood that free markets were good for maximizing economic value, and not moral value. A corporation is created to make money, i.e. increase revenue and minimize costs.  Just as a real person will strive to survive and thrive in the fiercely competitive natural world, the artificial person seeks to survive and thrive in the highly competitive economy.  But there is one key difference: a person’s struggle for survival is tempered by our capacity for moral reasoning, while a company is incapable of any moral agency.

Let me give you an example that seems obvious today: child labor.  I don’t know when the first moral issues about child labor were raised, but in the United States, the first state to make child labor illegal was Massachusetts in 1832.  At the Federal level, child labor was not illegal until 1938.  So what happened in between?  According to The Child Public Education Labor Project  “Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South.  By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement.”

Lets unpack this: there were a heterogeneous set of laws, and presumably child labor was less expensive or more productive than adult labor.  So a factory in a state where child labor was illegal was at a disadvantage when compared to a state without regulations.  Based on the numbers, the business case was strong to move the factory.  The only thing to keep it behind would be a moral argument.  But in my experience, it is hard for a morality-based argument to beat a numbers-based business case, especially if inaction could threaten the future viability of the business.

Now, I grant that some companies have cultures that do try to adhere to standards other than the numbers.  (I reject the notion that there are “good” companies on the same grounds that I reject the concept of “evil” companies.) But whatever company you are in, I would not trust them to set my moral compass.  They simply cannot detect moral issues.  Asking a company to do the right thing is like asking a blind person to pick out the blue shirt.  They can pick a shirt based on size or texture, or maybe even a label that says “blue” in brail.  But they do not have the sensory apparatus to know the difference between blue and red.

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Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work

How the Experts Characterize a "Bad Apple" At Work

One bad apple spoils the bunch via Flickr

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior.   However, there is significant overlap, and I read the business ethics literature in hopes of learning what drives people towards idolatry.

I hit the jackpot with a paper by Linda Treviño, one of the leaders in the field of business ethics.[i]  Treviño and colleagues did a meta-analysis of 136 prior publications studying the causes of unethical behavior, with a total sample size of 43,914 people.  Not surprisingly, any attempt to quantify human behavior is complicated, with many interdependent factors.  Nevertheless, there are enough people to do some real statistics, and what the framework she provided helped me understand the 80 hours of interviews I conducted as background for this book.  Unethical decisions at work can be traced to three sources: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.[ii]

People-centric drivers of unethical behavior

In general, Trevino showed that people who look out for number one are more likely to make unethical choices.  In addition, the data showed a statistically significant correlation between unethical behavior and the following personality characteristics:

  • a relative moral philosophy (i.e. values change with circumstances, which also is one of the key characteristics of idolatry.)
  • a propensity to manipulate others
  • an inability to see a connection between his or her own actions and consequences to other people

Equally interesting were the characteristics that did not correlate with unethical choices:

  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • level within the organization.

The latter finding was particularly disturbing to the authors because “integrity tests are most often used with lower level employees.”[iii]

Go to the next post to learn how circumstances and corporate culture impact ethical decisions.

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work is an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, the Five Star Best Seller on Amazon.

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[i] Linda Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.  She is the author of over 70 articles as well as several books.

[ii]   Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. Abstract.

[iii] Ibid p.20

Why Good People Do Bad Things At Work

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 16 (conclusion)

In my last post, I wrote about a meta-study of over 49,000 people that identified three drivers of unethical behavior at work: people, circumstances, and the corporate culture.  The last post focused on unethical people.  This post examines the elements of circumstances and corporate culture that can lead to unethical decisions.

Circumstance-centric drivers of unethical behavior

When the researchers analyzed what about a given situation can lead to an ethical or unethical decision, it basically came down to one thing: how does the decision maker perceive the consequence to other people?  With a perception of more immediate, severe, or local consequences, an unethical decision is less likely. Conversely, people are more likely to make an unethical decision if the potential consequences are long term, less severe, or will impact people far away.

Cultural drivers of unethical behavior correlate with the values of the organization.

As I have tried to demonstrate throughout this chapter, corporate culture is largely defined by the values and behavior, and certain cultures are more likely to encourage corporate idolatry.  In a similar way, Treviño’s research has shown that it is possible to identify certain elements of corporate culture that encourage unethical behavior.  A company with an “everyone for himself” mentality is much more likely to see unethical behavior than a culture that emphasizes the “wellbeing of multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers and community.”[i]

In addition, the presence of a written code of conduct did not correlate with ethical decisions, but “a properly enforced code of conduct can be a powerful influence on unethical choices.”[ii]  In other words, this paper reinforces the notion that actions and behaviors are the only true test of a value system.  The authors warn that “performance management systems that reward individual bottom-line achievement (no matter how it is achieved) and that failure to discipline self-serving behavior” are likely to give rise to a climate that tolerates unethical decisions.[iii]

As I studied the transcripts from the 80 hours of interviews I conducted for this book, I found corporate idolatry is influenced by the same three things: people, circumstances, and corporate culture.  The details, however, are different.  For example, Trevino found that age does not correlate with ethical behavior, I think it does correlate with corporate idolatry.

So on to Part II of Busting Your Corporate Idol.  The corporate ladder revisited is three chapters that examine how people, circumstances, and corporate culture contribute to a life of corporate idolatry.

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[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid