Careerism breeds mediocrity

A common gripe of ambitious people is the oppressive culture of mediocrity that almost everyone experiences at work: boring tasks, low standards, risk aversion, no appetite for excellence, and little chance to advance. The question is often asked: where does all this mediocrity come from? Obviously, there are organizational forces– risk-aversion, subordination, seniority– that give it an advantage, but what might be an individual-level root cause that brings it into existence in the first place? What makes people preternaturally tolerant of mediocrity, to such a degree that large organizations converge to it? Is it just that “most people are mediocre”? Certainly, anyone can become complacent and mediocre, given sufficient reward and comfort, but I don’t think it’s a natural tendency of humans. In fact, I believe it leaves us dissatisfied and, over the long run, disgusted with working life.

Something I’ve learned over the years about the difference between mediocrity and excellence is that the former is focused on ”being” and what one is, while the latter is about doing and what one creates or provides. Mediocrity wants to be attractive or important or socially well-connected. Excellence wants to create something attractive or perform an important job. Mediocrity wants to “be smart” and for everyone to know it. Excellence wants to do smart things. Mediocrity wants to be well-liked. Excellence wants to create things worth liking. Mediocrity wants to be one of the great writers. Excellence wants to write great works. People who want to hold positions, acquire esteem, and position their asses in specific comfortable chairs tend to be mediocre, risk-averse, and generally useless. The ones who excel are those who go out with the direct goal of achieving something.

The mediocrity I’ve described above is the essence of careerism: acquiring credibility, grabbing titles, and taking credit. What’s dangerous about this brand of mediocrity is that, in many ways, it looks like excellence. It is ambitious, just toward different ends. Like junk internet, it feels like real work is getting done. In fact, this variety of mediocrity is not only socially acceptable but drilled into children from a young age. It’s not “save lives and heal the sick” that many hear growing up, but “become a doctor”.

This leads naturally to an entitlement mentality, for what is a title but a privilege of being? Viscount isn’t something you do. It’s something you are, either by birth or by favor. Upper-tier corporate titles are similar, except with “by favor” being common because it must at least look like a meritocracy when, in truth, the proteges and winners have been picked at birth.

Corporations tend to be risk-averse and pathological, to such a degree that opportunities to excel are rare, and therefore become desirable. Thus, they’re allocated as a political favor. To whom? To people who are well-liked and have the finest titles. To do something great in a corporate context– to even have the permission to use your own time in such a pursuit– one first has to be something: well-titled, senior, “credible”. You can’t just roll up your sleeves and do something useful and important, lest you be chastised for taking time away from your assigned work. It’s ridiculous! Is it any wonder that our society has such a pervasive mentality of entitlement? When being something must occur before doing anything, there is no other way for people to react.

As I get older, I’m increasingly negative on the whole concept of careerism, because it makes being reputable (demonstrated through job titles) a prerequisite for doing something useful, and thereby generates a culture of entitled mediocrity, because its priorities lead naturally that way. What looks like ambition is actually a thin veneer over degenerate, worthless social climbing. Once people are steeped in this culture for long enough, they’re too far gone and real ambition has been drained from them forever.

This, I think, is Corporate America’s downfall. In this emasculated society, almost no one wants to do any real work– or to let anyone else do real work– because that’s not what gets rewarded, and to do anything that’s actually useful, one has to be something (in the eyes of others) first. This means that the doers who remain tend to be the ones who are willing to invest years in the soul-sucking social climbing and campaigning required to get there, and the macroscopic result of this is adverse selection in organizational leadership. Over time, this leaves organizations unable to adapt or thrive, but it takes decades for that process to run its course.

What’s the way out? Open allocation. In a closed-allocation dinosaur company, vicious political fights ensue about who gets to be “on” desirable projects. People lose sight of what they can actually do for the company, distracted by the perpetual cold war surrounding who gets to be on what team. You don’t have this nonsense in an open-allocation company. You just have people getting together to get something important done. The way out is to remove the matrix of entitlement, decisively and radically. That, and probably that alone, will evade the otherwise inevitable culture of mediocrity that characterizes most companies.

Never sign a PIP. Here’s why.

I alluded to this topic in Friday’s post, and now I’ll address it directly. This search query comes to my blog fairly often: “should I sign a PIP?” The answer is no.

Why? Chances are, performance doesn’t mean what you think it does. Most people think of “performance improvement” as something well-intended, because they take performance to mean “how good I am at my job”. Well, who doesn’t want to get better at his or her job? Even the laziest people would be able to get away with more laziness if they were more competent. Who wouldn’t want to level up? Indeed, that’s how these plans are presented: as structures to help someone improve professional capability. However, that’s not what “performance” means in the context of a employment contract. When a contract exists, non-performance is falling short of an agreed-upon provision of the contract. It doesn’t mean that the contract was fulfilled but in a mediocre way. It means that the contract was breached.

So when someone signs a PIP, he might think he’s agreeing that, “Yeah, I could do a few things better.” That’s not what he’s actually saying, at least not to the courts. He’s agreeing to be identified as a non-performing– again, in the legal sense of the word– employee, in the same category as one who doesn’t show up or who breaks fundamental ethical guidelines. Signing a PIP isn’t an admission that one could have been better at one’s job, but that one wasn’t doing one’s job. Since white-collar work is subjective and job descriptions are often ill-defined, making the binary question of professional and contractual performance difficult to assess in the first place, this sort of admission is gold for an employer looking to fire someone without paying severance. The employer will have a hell of a time proving contractual non-performance (which is not strictly required in order to fire someone, but makes the employer’s case stronger) without such a signature, given that most white-collar work has ill-defined requirements and performance measures.

Managers often claim that signing such paperwork only constitutes admission to having read it, not agreeing to the assessment. Even if true, it’s still a bad idea to sign it. This is now an adversarial relationship, which means that what makes the manager’s work (in the firing process) easier makes your life worse. Verbally, you should say “I agree to perform the duties requested of me, and to make the changes indicated, to the best of my ability, but there are factual inaccuracies and I cannot sign this without speaking to an attorney.” If you are pressed to sign, or threatened with termination, then you may sign it, but include the words “under duress”. (The shorthand “u.d.” will not suffice.) What this means is that, since you were threatened with summary termination, you were not free to decline the PIP, and therefore your signature is meaningless.

Whether you sign the PIP or not, you will probably be fired in time, unless you get another job before the process gets to that point. Not signing it doesn’t make it impossible for them to fire you. It only makes it somewhat harder. So why is it harmful to sign it? You want two things. First, you want time. The longer you have to look for a new job while being employed the old company, the better. If your manager sees you as a risk of messy termination, he’s more likely to let you leave on your own terms because it generates minimal work for him. PIPs are humiliating and appear to be an assertion of power, but they’re an exhausting slog for a manager. Second, you want severance if you don’t find a job in time and do get fired. Severance should never be your goal– non-executives don’t get large severances, so it’s generally better for your career and life to get another job– but you shouldn’t give that away for free.

There isn’t any upside to signing the PIP because, once one is presented, the decision to fire has already been made. A manager who genuinely wants to improve a person’s performance will communicate off the record. Once the manager is “documenting”, the relationship’s over. Also, people very rarely pass PIPs. Some people get the hint and leave, others fail and are fired, and in the remainder of cases, the PIP is ruled “inconclusive”, which means “not enough evidence to terminate at this time”. That’s not exactly an endorsement. For a PIP to be passed would require HR to side with the employee over management, and that will never happen. If the employee is under the same manager in 6 months, there will be another PIP. If the employee tries to move to another team, that will be almost impossible, because a “passed” PIP doesn’t mean exoneration. The reputation for instability created by a PIP lingers on for years. What I am essentially saying here is that, once a PIP appears, you should not sign it for the sake of maintaining a professional relationship. There is no relationship at that point.

Signing the PIP means you don’t know how to play the termination endgame. It means that you have no idea what’s happening to you, and you can be taken advantage of.

This said, there’s a way of not signing it. If you appear to be declining to sign out of bitterness or anger, that doesn’t work in your favor. Then you come off as childish. Childish people are easy to get rid of: just put them in increasingly ridiculous circumstances until they lose their cool and fire themselves by doing something stupid, like throwing a stapler at someone. The image you want to project is of a confident, capable adult– one who will not sign the PIP, because he knows it’s not in his advantage to do so, and who knows his rights under the law. This makes you intimidating. You don’t want to frighten adversaries like this– a frightened enemy is dangerous unpredictable– but you do want to intimidate them, so they get out of your way.

There’s a lot more to say about PIPs, which are dishonestly named processes since their real purpose is to create a paper trail to justify firing someone. That I’ll cover in a future post. For now, I think I’ve covered the most important PIP question. Don’t sign the fucking thing. Be professional (that’s more intimidating than being bitter) but decline to sign and, as fast as you can, get another job. If you see a PIP, moving on is your job.