I’ve spent most of my free moments over the weekend reading and contemplating
Seth Godin‘s new book, Linchpin. I’m about half way through, and it’s becoming clear that one of Seth’s main themes is that the real way to get ahead is to make an emotional investment in your work.
I have always agreed with this principle. Over the years, I’ve had discussions with people managing workers in all walks of life, and the bottom line has been that som people seem easily motivated by extrinsic things, like a promise of a bonus, or money, but there’s another subset of people for whom the external motivators are just not what motivates them to come into work every day- their motivation is more about doing something worth while and making a difference. You can try to add additional motivators onto a task, for example, paying someone a bit more for doing a bit more work, but for some people, the compliment or acknowledgement of a job well done is worth more than the paycheck. It doesn’t mean they’ll work for free, but the value of the work itself is a cornerstone of why they do it in the first place.
What struck me is this hits to the core of how we’ve constructed capitalism. We hear people say things like “I pay them to do a job, not to care or to second guess my decisions- I’m paying you to do what I say”- but it seems to me to take the value people could potentially add to your business is a pretty dangerous position to take long term.
Here’s where it gets interesting to me. I’ve been listening to a bunch of NPR interviews recently, featuring an author , Anne Heller, talking about her book, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Ayn Rand wrote several famous books, again on the best seller list as conservative bibles, basically spawning a philosophical movement called Objectivism. Her opinions were basically that any government interventions were undue interference. It’s even noted that Alan Greenspan knew and was quite fond of Ayn Rand and her positions.
My dad was a big fan on Ayn Rand, and as an engineer and MIT graduate, was devoted to science and logic almost as a religion unto itself. Whenever I would get emotionally worked up over something, he would say that “crying never made anything better” and left me with the impression that how I felt about something was never really as important as what I thought about it. Thinking and feeling were very separate things. Objectivism, facts and logic – intellectualism- should rule the day. The economics and conservative movement of our Country post World War II could be said to derive from some of Ayn Rand’s power and freedom of the individual over the government interference almost at any cost. Ayn Rand also tolerated very little dissent and demanded loyalty from her followers, saying that if anyone disagreed with her, they weren’t thinking properly- somewhat totalitarian in her own way.
What’s interesting is that it struck me that Seth’s book is the anti-Ayn Rand.
*warning- geeky Star Trek Metaphors ahead *
Where companies and corporations take on a Vulcan-like analysis of cold hard facts and logic, decisions made by data alone, Linchpin puts forth an argument that people respond to other people. People want you to be invested in what you do- to care, to do more than the minimum, to stop phoning it in or taking up space. It’s almost a Romulan view, to extend the Star Trek metaphor.
As I understand the Vulcan/Romulan history, the Vulcans and Romulans have a common history, but split off into two people- one branch devoted to logic and Ayn Rand-like objectivism, while the other group remained passionate and are often characterized as cunning and opportunistic.
While I think the terms “cunning and opportunistic” sound negative, I think Seth would agree that his book encourages everyone to leverage the opportunity to stand out from the pack by doing what has become rare- being caring and passionate about everything you do. This may be a time where we have to put objectivism aside and realize that as much as the logical thing to do seems clear, the illogical or “Predictably Irrational” thing may be the better and more adaptive choice when dealing with people. Even the Star Trek movies acknowledge openly that humans are emotional, irrational and often unpredictable creatures, and this is what makes us special and remarkable as a species.
Let’s take a typical customer service problem. Customer X calls up and needs a problem handled with their account. The operator knows they are being evaluated and paid based on how they handle the call, but also how long they stay on the phone. There’s more of an incentive to placate the person, pass it up the chain, or basically get off the phone as quickly as possible rather than thoughtfully deal with the customer’s problem the first time. After all, if you are on the phone too long, or are too nice to the customers, you don’t meet quota- the way you are doing your job looks like you are costing them more money, on phone time alone, than the money you might save them by handling the problem correctly the first time.
When I worked in one of these call centers during college, I regularly spent whatever time was necessary to solve the problem completely. I felt better, and I knew I was leaving after a short period of time, so I felt more free to ignore the call time metric. They weren’t going to raise my summer hourly wage, so really, what did I care? I could do the job right the first time without any negative consequences, so I willingly broke the rules. A friend of mine does this at her current job, and while she gets recognized from time to time as having the best calls overheard by headquarters, she also gets equally chastised over her per call time- talking about sending your people mixed messages.
Even when I was tutoring students, a faculty member told me I couldn’t give my students treats because it was against the rules. However, my kids would turn themselves inside out for me for forty minutes for a tootsie roll at the end of a session, so I said simply- “They’ll have to fire me, then.” It was never a big deal after that, and she often remarked what a great group I had and how hard they worked for me and how lucky I was. I knew that it was because we had established a trust and rapport, sweetened with sugar, of course, but everyone benefitted from this deal.
I’ve always been willing to bend the rules when necessary, and particularly when the end result was doing a better and more effective job. If I ever get fired for that, it’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I know at the heart of it, I’m doing the right thing over the expedient thing, and I’d rather not work for an organization that doesn’t value that principle.
So when Seth talks about Linchpins having this attitude, I certainly don’t need any convincing. But I also realize it’s going to take a lot to convince the people who think the system looks great on paper that it needs to be different for the real world,where people and feelings and gut reactions play a huge part in decisions and choices on all levels. The age of Ayn Rand and Objectivism is starting to give way to a world in which feelings and connections are more important than ever before. The humans are in charge, sitting somewhere on the spectrum between the Vulcans and Romulans, hopefully making a place where everyone will be able to function, even if it makes them all a bit uncomfortable from time to time.