Gervais / MacLeod 5: Interfaces, meritocracy, the effort thermocline, and a solution.

Today, I continue my analysis of the MacLeod hierarchy and the Gervais Principle. (See: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.) I’m going to analyze the interfaces between the three MacLeod tiers in order to tease out the magic that makes it all work. How do three disparate types of people get along seamlessly? What prevents the existence of the Sociopaths and Losers from “cluing in” the Clueless?

In doing this, I’ll also analyze the concept of “meritocracy” in the corporate world. Every company seems to think its internal mechanics are meritocratic. VC-istan sees itself (despite the heavily manipulated market) as the ultimate in meritocracy. Is there truth in this? That I’ll address.

The Loser/Clueless interface: differential social status

The separation between the Loser and Clueless tiers comes down to differential social status (DSS). Here, “social status” includes not only in-crowd membership and popularity, but also the hard currencies: job titles, division of labor and compensation. Based on work experience, education, and negotiation skills, people have certain “market levels” of social status that they can expect to get in a new company. The difference between what a person has at a current job and what she can get on the market in a new job is DSS.

It’s not uncommon for a person’s DSS to become negative, when she improves faster than her company allows her career to advance. She can improve her standing by finding another job. In fact, in slow-to-promote organizations, negative DSS becomes common over time. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” This may explain why most organizations do a poor job of promoting from within– they have a systematic tendency to downgrade their own people relative to outsiders, the latter being untarnished by years of political fighting. People who grow “too fast” for most companies become used to negative DSS and underestimation, and end up with a “job hopping” trajectory.

That said, most people will have DSS close to zero. Relative to the noise factor inherent in taking a new job and the tendency of social status toward illegibility, whatever they have effectively a rounding error. For our purposes, we will say people with such close-to-zero DSS have “zero DSS”. Losers, when they play social games, tend to form in-crowds that don’t matter, such as the “Finer Things Club” and the “Party Planning Committee” on The Office, but these have no effect on compensation or division of labor. They’re diversions, and they don’t generate meaningful DSS.

There are three common things that will create a non-zero DSS. The first is for management to recognize someone formally with a job title or promotion, which creates positive DSS if management takes the accolade more seriously than the external market would. The second, which generates negative DSS, is for a person to be embarrassed or develop a negative reputation among colleagues. (If that person gets a negative reputation with management, she usually just gets fired.) The third source of DSS, probably most painfully common to my readers, is for a person to improve without it being recognized. This person’s DSS goes negative not because of organizational adversity, but because the organization refuses to allow someone to advance at the rate at which she actually improves, leaving her in a role and on work that’s below her frontier of ability.

Most corporate denizens aren’t noticed in any special way by management or their colleagues at large, nor do they improve fast enough to generate the third category of DSS. The result is that it’s most common for a person’s DSS to be close to zero.

Organizations have a love/hate relationship with DSS. On one hand, it’s a means of self-definition for the organization, and a way to motivate people. Those with positive DSS are going to behave like owners, because they’ll experience a drop in working conditions, compensation, and quality of work if they lose their jobs. Those with negative DSS serve a pariah or “omega” function: a way for an organization to state what it dislikes. DSS gives organizations a banner and a way to proclaim their values by promoting those who exemplify them. On the other hand, DSS is unstable. People with negative DSS will leave, of course. Regarding positive DSS, Sociopaths and Losers, when they find themselves with it, will usually try to parlay that into persistent, outside-of-firm social status and improve their long-term career prospects. If you’re strategic and have positive DSS, this is what you want to do with it: convert it into something that’s not contingent upon one organizational role. This improvement of their external alternatives reduces that positive DSS.

With the concept of differential social status well-understood, we can approach the Loser/Clueless interface. Losers have DSS right around zero, like most people. They could get other, equivalent jobs. What keeps them loyal and in-place isn’t the economic superiority of what they have, but the fact that they prioritize comfort and stability over the potential for gain. Additionally, when Losers get positive DSS they will, because they are strategic, convert it into genuine improvement of their overall career standing. One of the most incredible moments in The Office is when Pam, a receptionist converted into an unsuccessful saleswoman, uses the organizational “fog of war” following a management takeover to invent a new job for herself– a salaried Office Manager role. Pam is a MacLeod Loser, but a smart and very strategic one who uses her positive DSS (being married to “rising star” Jim, and having been with the company for much longer than the new management) to get improvements that actually matter: a better job title and more pay. The result of this is that Losers don’t tend to build up a bankroll of DSS. They convert it into forms that are more persistent and useful. If they can rise to a higher level in the organization, they do so and become Losers there (which is better than being a Loser at a lower level.) Clueless, on the other hand, will build DSS because they never cash it in.

It’s the Clueless who climb ladders, pay dues, and take on additional responsibilities in order to develop positive DSS, which they perceive as a two-sided loyalty. Venkat Rao argued The Office to be the first American workplace drama to peer into the world of the Clueless. I disagree. Willy Loman, in The Death of a Salesman, is the archetypal literary Clueless. Loman is a true believer in the importance of being well-liked. He builds up a bunch of relationships that, in the end, don’t matter and won’t save him. The loyalty is not reciprocated. He fails to convert his transient DSS into something more stable and, as he ages, it goes away.

So, how shall we separate the Loser and Clueless tiers? Losers, in general, do not exert themselves to build up positive DSS. When they get it, they attempt to convert it into something less contingent and more permanent. Sociopaths pursue DSS but only as a mechanism to rise to the top of the organization, which means they cash it in likewise. Clueless, apart from Losers, are those who sit on a fat bankroll of untapped and local social capital. They keep their DSS as it is, being true believers and wanting to show personal investment in the company. So what differentiates Losers from Clueless is a persistent pattern of nonzero DSS.

The Clueless/Sociopath interface: the effort thermocline

More interesting than the Loser/Clueless interface is the one that separates the Clueless and Sociopath tiers: the effort thermocline. Low in the organization, jobs get harder and more demanding as one rises the ranks. Salaried office workers work harder than hourly employees. Middle managers often work harder than the people they supervise, having more to lose. In the Loser and Clueless tiers, each promotion means higher standards, longer hours, and less job security.

There’s a level at which the jobs stop getting harder with each step up, and start getting easier at a rapid rate. Middle managers, in most organizations, are glorified grunts with front-man responsibility for meeting deadlines and deliverables, but no authority to define them or set priorities. However, there’s a level in each organization where the perks of the job include autonomous control over the division of labor and an extremely lenient performance evaluation process. It’s the “good old boy” club of upper management. It’s the level at which the top brass say, “Welcome, you can breathe now.” This group can be clubby and petty like any gossip-ridden small town, and this can make life within it very stressful, but judgment based on effort and sacrifice end.

The separation between these two worlds is the effort thermocline. That thermocline is the highest that a typical organization will allow someone to rise by working hard. It’s the top of the Clueless tier, the bottom of the Sociopath capstone, and if it’s serving its purpose well, it’s a one-way mirror: opaque from below, transparent from above. Executive Sociopaths, from the other side of the thermocline, appear (from below) to be working hard. Because they control not only the division of labor but the physical space, they can manufacture the image of high effort and investment while they enjoy the comfort of a private office and take the “fun work” for themselves. Losers, to some extent, know what’s up, but they’re so far from that theatre that they don’t really care about it on a day-to-day basis. The veil is for the Clueless, who must be tricked into seeing superior Cluelessness when they look up.

The purpose of the effort thermocline is to create an image of effort-based meritocracy at the bottom. This ruse makes people work hard, and it also creates social stability because people aren’t too eager to rise. Most Losers genuinely don’t want their boss’s jobs, because they realize they’ll be expected to put forth 50-200 percent more effort in exchange for about a 20-percent pay raise. Most Clueless see their bosses as superior– more talented, more experienced– and consider themselves ineligible (at least, at the time) for the roles above them. The only people who expect to rise rapidly (skipping the demanding middle ranks if possible) are the Sociopaths. As soon as they have something to trade, they look for a market.

Above the effort thermocline, being seen as hard-working isn’t especially important. In fact, it can be detrimental. If you have to work 12 hours per day, you’re probably inefficient. Sociopaths see the sacrificial lambs in the Clueless tier as chumps. Sociopaths actually “get” organizational politics. They understand that their progress within the organization will be based not on how much of themselves they put into an impersonal, organizational meritocracy (that doesn’t exist) but on how well they trade assets with important individuals. Effort is just one asset; credibility, relationships and information are often more important, and often easier to attain.

This enables us, as well, to look at some differences between the true Psychopath and the Technocrat (“good Sociopath”). The most successful Clueless have an unconditional work ethic, while Psychopaths and Technocrats are all about working smart. They define that a bit differently, however. Psychopaths like to manipulate people; Technocrats aim for improvements and genuine efficiency. They’re both hackers, but they enjoy different kinds of hacks.

Organizations that are going to generate MacLeod classes (and I will argue, later, that they need not necessarily do so) rely heavily on the effort thermocline. It’s the spine of the organization. Just above it are the lowest-tier Sociopaths who get direct information from the base of the company. As the executive suite’s filter, they have an enormous influence over what information is presented, when, and how. Top-tier Clueless could have this power if they wanted it, but their earnestness prevents them from seeing or exploiting the editorial control they could exert. To them, furnishing information is a duty, not something to be selectively performed. Thus, the information flow into the upper ranks of the company will generally come from the Sociopaths just above that thermocline, who perform the first filter.

Top-tier Clueless provide an obvious benefit as well, which is that they set the pace for the world below them. The most dedicated, productive Clueless are held up (at least superficially) as role models for the organization. Additionally, they take final responsibility for operational issues. Low-level Losers can blame circumstances for failures, nonproductivity, and mistakes. If the Loser’s computer breaks, he can sit tight and wait for IT to fix it. The perk of being a Loser is that the organization is tacitly responsible for maintaining your work conditions. Sociopaths cleverly define their jobs so as to have no hard responsibilities or deliverables. It ends up being the Clueless who are held responsible for keeping the lights on, resolving communication difficulties, and doing the ugliest work.

Technology, VC-istan, and meritocracy…

In my last post, I discussed the pseudo-meritocracy of VC-istan. What makes VC-istan successful is that it generates a context in which highly intelligent people can be rendered Clueless. When the ruse is new, peoples’ psychological immune systems haven’t formed yet and the smartest people, who would converge to MacLeod Loserism or Sociopathy in a normal corporation, can buy into it. Free markets are, on their own terms, meritocratic. The heavily manipulated market (by VCs and acquirers) looks like such. What makes VC-istan so brilliant is that the effort thermocline is extra-organizational. It’s not an organizational promotion that launches a person beyond the veil. It requires getting an entirely different job description.

For hard technological work, the MacLeod hierarchy is clearly dysfunctional. Losers are good at delivering grunt work reliably, but it tends to require a large number of them to do a major project. In technology, the result of this is intolerable communication overhead. Clueless tend to solve the wrong problems, unless micromanaged. Sociopaths, if they turn “black hat”, are outright dangerous. Whatever it is that causes the MacLeod hierarchy to emerge, the technological world would do well to eliminate that.

VC-istan’s pretense is that it has eliminated or obsoleted the MacLeod hierarchy, which is clearly dysfunctional. That’s actually not the case. The hierarchy has re-emerged. The solution is disposable companies. Sociopaths, as anywhere, find ways to trade social assets at a profit and become the major players. Many are not investors or “tech press”; in fact, I would guess that most of the Sociopaths are executives who’ve cultivated relationships with investors and can get themselves plugged into de-risked companies with absurdly high compensation. Clueless are the ones who suffer all the pain and risk. Losers are unemployable. Over time, this Loserlessness (despite the fact there’s a lot of losing going on) bifurcates the Clueless caste into Clueless-Losers and Clueless-Sociopaths. These mid-grade classes exist as Clueless rapidly become clueful, but are generally transient states. Clueless-Sociopaths are the ones who will readily screw their colleagues over but still believe that “delivering” is more important than acquiring credibility and trading social assets. Clueless-Losers are the ones who keep faith in the lofty “vision” (read: marketing) of their companies but have learned to tolerate subordination and are gradually realizing that their future and their firm’s (or VC-istan’s) will diverge.

With all this, the MacLeod hierarchy seems to fly in the face of the high-minded concept of meritocracy. In fact, MacLeod organizations are meritocratic not only on their own terms, but on multiple sets of terms. Losers, in general, don’t care either way whether their organizations are meritocratic. They can see the lie, but it doesn’t upset or anger them, because they don’t care to play in the higher leagues where the lie is in force. However, the differential social status of the Clueless, in addition to the opacity of the effort thermocline, create the appearance of a meritocracy from a Clueless position. That keeps these “useful idiots” happy and striving. For their part, Sociopaths also perceive a meritocracy, if only because they define merit as “what you can get”. To a Sociopath, the idea that there would be any definition of merit other than raw power, status, or money is laughable.

This leads me to a brief exploration of what I call localism and globalism. I borrowed it from machine learning and mathematical modeling. A global model is one that imposes underlying structure and uses that for prediction, while a local one uses nearby data and discounts distant observations. For example, if one were to predict average annual temperatures of geographic locations, the tendency for polar locations to be colder than equatorial ones is a very strong global feature. If you were to predict temperatures based on only one variable, latitude is what you’d use, and it would serve well for the majority of places, but not all. On the other hand, local data has value insofar as it can capture variations (altitude, ocean currents) that are specific to small regions. Rome is very warm for its latitude because of the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf Stream; Lhasa, quite cold because of its altitude and continental location. Ultimately, the solution to most complex problems is going to require a mix of local and global approaches.

The age-old debate between planned and market economies is related to this. Socialism is an approach that sets social-justice standards (“no one should be without appropriate health care”) and expects to apply them globally. Central planning imposes globally-oriented solutions on a diverse world. (This is one of the reasons why Marx believed communism needed to be worldwide.) Capitalism allows individuals to exploit local information for personal profit, with the desire, because such exploitation will require trade, that some of the surplus will be dissipated into society in the process. Neither of these two approaches, standing alone, is adequate. Societies, it turns out, need both. Laissez-faire capitalism tends to diverge into undesirable states when power disparities reach a certain critical level of self-perpetuation. Without some wealth transfer back into the poor, absolute libertarian capitalism devolves into oligarchy and, as it perpetuates itself across generations, aristocracy. On the other hand, outright command economies cannot make use of the wealth of distant, local information out there and stagnate, in addition to becoming extremely corrupt. In either case, the elite becomes a locality that is both incapable of solving global problems or serving other localities, and disinterested in doing so.

Corporate organizations are an interesting beast, in this light, and it’s useful to assess how the MacLeod Clueless and Sociopaths approach them. Ultimately, the corporation’s purpose is to provide some of the security of socialism while serving a capitalist purpose on the external market. Policies are set to impose fairness constraints that are held to be global up to the extent of the organization. The corporation takes on the hard, dirty work of competing on a tooth-and-claw market, but internally, it’s supposed to provide its employees with the comfort of a well-run, stable command economy in which the demands on them and their compensation will be regular and reasonable. This is the risk transfer that Losers tolerate, which is why they can’t be considered actual “losers”. Their low compensation (from an expected-value perspective) is due to the premium they pay for this comfort and abstraction. What corporations create is a story of internal globality. Most importantly, employees get a guaranteed minimum income based on the value of their skills.

The World is big and unwieldy and heterogeneous and scary. It’s a chaotic mess. Corporations intend to create order within the mess, and leave interaction with the scary Without to an exalted caste (in truth, comprised mostly of rent-seeking Sociopaths) called “executives”. They’ll handle that stuff. Employees can live in comfort and stability.

An analogy for this might be a cruise ship, which provides the comforts of a hotel in an environment where most people lack the skills necessary to survive. Losers are happy to remain above-decks. They enjoy the abstraction. Clueless, on the other hand, want to graduate from passengers to drivers. They’re willing to deal with bilge pumps and engine rooms. They want to “learn the ropes”, as if such objective principles existed. Although they are the actual (unwitting) muscle of the company, Clueless have a childlike eagerness to become “adults”, failing to recognize what Sociopaths already know: there are no adults. In the corporate world, there is no “God”. You get what you can get.

It’s the Clueless who believe in objective corporate policies, enforce written rules because they are rules, and sustain the fiction of a globalist meritocracy where talent within the organization will always be allocated toward its best use. Sociopaths, on the other hand, tend to be aggressive localist players who already comprehend that the best way to “get ahead” is the old-fashioned, localist, way: trading favors, peddling influence, and leveraging information. Clueless believe in a paternalistic, globalist system that will take care of everyone, and intend to gradually grow into a “leadership” role. Sociopaths focus on the local problem: moving themselves forward by exploiting features and people that are close to them.

Neither localism nor globalism is innately superior but, strategically, the localist approach is bound to be more successful within the modern corporate organization. Sociopaths can be either localist or globalist in orientation but, in the workplace, they take the more effective localist approach. Sociopaths win because, ultimately, the “global-within-local” concept is, in most corporate organizations, fictional. The people running these companies have no real stake in the globalist fairness constraints put forward as the organization’s values. The real dominating behavior is localism.

For one example of the ruse, let’s consider the legal obligation of corporate executives to represent the immediate financial interests of shareholders, even if the action taken is socially irresponsible. That “obligation” doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction, designed to give what these Sociopathic executives want (aggressive, self-promoting localism) a globalist spin: it’s just the law. The Clueless buy into it, and believe that “the company” is doing all these bad things because it has no choice. What is actually happening here is that executives have figured out that there’s profit to be made in taking a localist approach, and they want in. Executives are supposed to be the fair stewards of a fairness-and-process-oriented (i.e. globalist) organization dedicated toward capitalist purposes, but they become localists within them. Managers and the more adept employees have caught on to localism as well and taken up a strategy of careerist job-hopping instead of loyalist dues-paying. Good for them, too. They get it. The result of this, on the large scale, is the breakdown of the Clueless-o-polis of the paternal organization.

Transcending the MacLeod hierarchy

The MacLeod hierarchy emerges because of a tension between globalism and localism, and the tendency for globalism to be implemented half-heartedly. People who are rich– here, I’m not talking about financial wealth so much as risk tolerance and the ability to withstand intermittent, short-term failures– want the localist right to exploit information (opportunities for profit) as soon as they discover it. Among the rich, there are those who intend to take the high road (Technocrats) and make the world genuinely better, and the degenerates (Psychopaths) who will exploit anything, even if it’s a negative- or zero-sum cost externalization. Those who are poor and don’t have the resources, capital, credibility or connections to survive a failure prefer the safety net provided by a globalist institution, whether it be a large private company or a government. The Losers are the poor who understand the trade (and defect if the organization shows malevolence or extreme incompetence) and take part, because they prefer or need stability. The evil of such organizations is not that the risk transfer exists and that the poor are rewarded “unfairly” by losing in expected-value terms– that is basic finance (here applied, additionally, to non-financial assets like social stability and credibility). It’s that the Psychopaths at the top of many organizations will do anything possible to drive the exchange rate (not set by a fair market) on this risk transfer as far out of whack as they can get it. The end-state is an organization where the low-level Losers get almost nothing in the way of risk reduction, but give up a lot in terms of compensation and advancement potential (that might enrich them and bring them out of involuntarily Loserism).

My contention is that the MacLeod hierarchy doesn’t emerge only out of peoples’ psychological traits and emotional tastes for various forms of risk. If that were the case, it would be inevitable, and organizations would invariably tend toward pathology. I don’t think it’s so. I think that the MacLeod issues come from rich and poor, which are not limited to financial wealth. So where do rich and poor come from? Ultimately, on the organizational setting, they come from credibility, which I’ve discussed previously. In most companies, the credibility of a non-managerial employee is almost zero. Credibility is intentionally made scarce within the organization. What happens when you lack credibility? Your ideas aren’t taken seriously, you don’t get to define appropriate use of your own working time, and if it goes to zero, you’re typically fired. In the MacLeod world, Losers acquire just enough credibility to feather a nest and, once done, stop gambling. Clueless lay down enormous amounts of effort to get credibility, mindless of the diminishing returns, and get some moderate amount. Sociopaths find the credibility black market (there always is one) and find the most efficient ways to cheat the system, and they get the most credibility of all.

At this point, we can discuss the four work cultures and their tendencies. The planned cultures are guild and rank cultures, and those have globalist intent. Professions, in fact, are globalist beyond the extent of one company, and usually exist to create a guild culture outside of it. The better of the two planned cultures is the guild culture, which replaces power relationships with mentors and proteges. The “boss” is a teacher. The pathological planned culture is the rank culture where blind subordination becomes requisite. The market cultures are the self-executive and tough cultures. Both hold the employee responsible for delivering value to the firm, and allow for localist autonomy of sub-organizations, but the difference is that the self-executive culture gives employees more time to bring their ideas to fruition and more opportunities for good-faith failure. Tough cultures have tight deadlines and no control over scope-of-work for low-level employees. The self-executive culture is the healthier of the two market cultures, and the tough culture is the pathological one.

What unifies the two healthy cultures, and the two pathological ones? It comes down to employee credibility. The credibility floor in the tough and rank cultures is zero. Employees are not held to be implicitly credible. An employee who can’t demonstrate hard value-add on a minute-by-minute basis fails in a tough culture. One who is disliked by his manager fails in rank culture. Both of these cultures, in functionality, are defined by the fear-driven, cutthroat, unethical, and often harmful activities in which normal people will engage when there’s a threat of their credibility levels dropping to an unacceptable level.

The healthy cultures, on the other hand, set a credibility floor, although they do it in markedly different ways. The guild culture has a rigid seniority system, but assumes the junior employee to be a student and therefore of value– especially future value– to the organization. The self-executive culture is a more localist, market-driven culture, but with the assumption that each employee has some quantum of irrevocable credibility– a real vote that can’t be taken away by a priapic manager.

Companies that establish a credibility floor will still exhibit shifts of influence and, if nothing else, inequalities in soft power. There will be cliques and the best one can do is to render them fairly harmless. There will also be attempts to game the system and amass credibility through a variety of means. Credibility trades, although they “shouldn’t” exist, will. That’s human nature. The difference is that, when a credibility floor exists, one doesn’t have the panic trading (which Psychopaths love, because it’s easiest to exploit) that generates organizational pathology at such a rate that it’s uncontrollable. The trade of credibility still exists, but it’s mostly harmless and does not reach a level that creates unmanageable organizational pathology. When there’s a credibility floor, the rate of corrosion is slow enough that attentive management can reverse the damage. When the credibility floor is zero and panic trading defines the organization, institutional corrosion is so rapid and ubiquitous that it can’t be halted. 

I must make one note, here: companies that intend to function without corrosion and pathology must establish a credibility floor. That’s not to say that they must employ unproductive or harmful individuals indefinitely. If someone punches another employee, he’s still “credible” in the abstract, but he’s every bit as fired, because what he did was wrong and dangerous. The purpose of a credibility floor isn’t to say that no one ever gets fired (that’s a horrible idea) but to prevent people from, in RPG terms, being “killed by the dice”– that is, fired because of credibility fluctuations, and not because they deserve it.

It’s the absence of a credibility floor that generates a permanent Loser caste (whose exchange rate in their requisite risk transfer becomes increasingly unfavorable) and a fear-driven, tunnel-visioned Clueless “useful idiot” class, leaving both groups prone to exploitative Sociopaths. So the question becomes, then: how does an organization create a credibility floor? How can one globally legislate an amorphous, hard-to-define, and often very local social asset? That’s an incredibly hard problem to solve, and where I intend to go next.

Gervais / MacLeod 4: a world without Losers?

This is a continuation of last week’s analysis of various work cultures and the patterns of degeneracy. I’ve analyzed hierarchies that form in organizational cultures and the relationship between ascendancy and bad behavior (in particular, psychopathy). I’ve touched on the VC-funded startup ecosystem (VC-istan) but don’t think I’ve done it justice. In these small, agile companies, does the MacLeod classification apply? Or has this dysfunctional and unfair arrangement been rendered obsolete? If so, then how? If not, then who are the Sociopaths, Clueless, and Losers? I’ll answer that. Today, I’m going to focus on the sociology of VC-istan, perhaps the first truly postmodern corporate body.

VC-istan likes to believe that it has evolved beyond the traditional corporate dysfunctions, meaning that the MacLeod hierarchy might be outdated or inaccurate. I will show that this is not the case.

VC-istan, as a post-modern corporate organization, has figured out that companies are disposable. I’m not talking about shell companies, but full-fledged corporate organizations where people actually go to work. These firms have a team and a product. People get hurt when they melt down. The product manager gets to call himself a “CEO” and the technical lead is a “CTO”. They identify as “a startup”, which has some attractive features. If it’s a startup, programmers are unlikely to confront 20-year-old legacy code, and divisions of labor may be undefined enough that an engineer who enters in the right way can get a very high quality of work. It almost looks like these entities are free-standing companies, as they would be, were it not for their dependence on continuing financial investment. That need to be hooked in to prominent investors and VC-istan press keeps them from being truly independent, but they have just enough independence that VC-istan looks like a pattern of separate companies merely flying in formation.

At the top of the VC-istan social pyramid are the venture capitalists. Rather than compete with one another, they collude in order to collectively determine which courtier projects deserve funding and which deserve to lose. As such, they’re effectively one executive team. These are the MacLeod Sociopaths and, as discussed, that doesn’t mean they’re all bad people or sociopaths in the true sense– only that bad people have a disproportionately high likelihood of rising to that tier. A better, more neutral, term would be Manipulators.

To understand why VCs behave in this way, it’s important to assess the mechanics of their industry. Most investments will lose, but the few that succeed will return 10, 100, or even 1000 times their original investment, and it’s nearly impossible to predict how a company will perform until it’s flat-out obvious to all in the know. This puts information and social access at a premium. Whether a VC will succeed has more to do with his access to emerging bargains than anything else. Most investors, therefore, would rather do right by other investors (in order to get an allocation in the next great deal) than by their entrepreneurs, who (as social inferiors) have no leverage. This creates the clubby, collusive nature for which VC-istan’s top echelons are known.

Where are the other two MacLeod tiers, the Clueless and the Losers? Here’s where it gets exciting. The rest of VC-istan is (almost) all Clueless– from the independent project managers called CEOs to the lowest-rung entry-level software engineers. Recall that the MacLeod Loser is, because he’s aware that he’s taking a raw deal, rationally disengaged and manages his performance toward socially acceptable averageness. Loser-level employees trade autonomy, time, self-respect and expectancy (average-case compensation) for minimized variance in compensation and social conditions. In The Office, they are the Stanleys and Phyllises and Angelas. They’ll get their assigned work done, stick around till 5:00, and follow orders… but they’re not likely to do more than that. VC-istan doesn’t want people like that.

The VC-istan culture emphasizes “leanness”, which is a code word for “No Losers”. Startups often say they’re looking for “true believers” (read: Clueless). Then there is the “brogrammer” culture (Clueless machismo) and the age discrimination problem, and it should be obvious what that’s about. Older people are likely either to have climbed the ranks (and, yes, VC-istan circa 2013 has ranks and its own ladder) or to be rationally disengaged Losers. Even the perks touted by many startups are aimed toward the Clueless. I know of one startup that brags about its free dinner (lunch is not provided). Losers would rather have more cash than a 7:00 dinner with co-workers; perks like that are for the Clueless. 

Venkat’s theory of corporate genesis ascertains that companies are started by Sociopaths, generate a Loser tier shortly afterward to handle dead-end administrative work, and then (in maturity) build a Clueless middle to handle growth as the social and economic distance between the company’s base and apex expands to the point that a buffer class is necessary. What causes corporate dysfunction, he argues, is the expansion of the Clueless tier, who lack the economic self-sacrifice (in exchange for social approval and comfort) of Losers and execution skill of the Sociopaths. VC-istan seems to prove, on the other hand, that companies can prosper not only with, but because of, a Clueless monoculture, if directed right.

What about the Sociopaths? Does VC-istan function without them? Well, no. There are Sociopathic founders and, among the people who are really in charge– investors, board members– there will probably be quite a few more. In VC-istan, however, they cleverly keep themselves out of view. Typical corporate culture celebrates the Sociopath lifestyle as something to which all should aspire, while tacitly understanding that the Losers, knowing their odds of making it are pathetically low, won’t depart from their rational disengagement. VC-istan, however, is supposed to be for the Clueless. Sociopaths just sign off on executive-level hires, move into top roles at VC-istan companies once they’re de-risked, and sign the checks.

How does VC-istan function without Losers? Or, are Losers necessary? Are they beneficial, or harmful? My opinion is that they’re beneficial to a large or stable organization. Losers are not really losers, so much as they trade opportunities for social status and economic expectancy for risk reduction and comfort. In addition to their desire for stability, they are stable. They’re loyal, willing to follow orders, and capable of delivering more economic value than they expect the company to provide for them (which is why they might be called “losers”). Rather than compete for better positions, they’ll perform well enough in the roles they have. For a stable, well-defined organization, hiring Losers is a winning proposition. You know that, on average, you will get more than you pay. However, fast-growing startups that can’t afford to tackle the communication problems of larger organizations are going to need to focus on average yield per employee rather than total yield. For this reason, they’d rather hire overachieving Clueless than rational Losers.

This Clueless-mania generates, as it were, a lot of terrible startups with stupid ideas. I’ve noted that Clueless aren’t strategic, and that shows. Most of these companies have silly ideas and crash and burn. For venture capitalists, this is not only tolerable but desirable. If VC-istan were a regular company, it would have to pay salaries month-to-month and pay severance when executives lost faith, projects were cancelled, and (for macroscopic reasons) there was no place to put the people. That gets expensive. With disposable companies, there’s no need to “waste” money on these “soft landings”. Investors can stop funding the companies and, to minimize harm to those they care about, soften the landings of any friends in those companies by handing out executive positions in other, healthier, firms.

I am, for my part, not averse to a tolerant attitude toward good-faith business failure. That’s one of the best things about American business culture. We aren’t perfect, but we’re far better than most other societies on this issue with our forgiving bankruptcy laws and (comparably) low level of small-business regulation. That said, I don’t think VC-istan holds moral high-ground here. VC-istan is tolerant of good-faith business failure, but only because companies are disposable. This also means that it’s tolerant of bad-faith business failure, which is what most “acq-hires” (which benefit executives, and screw employees) are. Furthermore, VC-istan’s tolerance of failure is superficial. It’s a world in which one is expected to be a CxO by 35, and in which the only socially acceptable role for someone after age 45 is investor. This harsh age-grading encourages the same kind of risk-aversion and backstabbing as the stodgy, old-style corporate world that VC-istan was supposed to replace. So how much progress has really been made?

There’s a question that remains about VC-istan’s attempt to “lean” itself down by eliminating the Loser class. Is that stable? Losers make a rational trade that has them “losing” from an economic point of view, but provides comfort and risk reduction. Unlike Clueless, they’re low maintenance. MacLeod Sociopaths embrace risk (and the truly psychopathic ones, as Venkat Rao observes, take “heads, I win; tails, you lose” positions) that Losers wish to sell. Clueless, for their part, are unaware of any risk trading that goes on. They are enticed with a delusion. They expect to rise through the ranks and win someday. To keep a Clueless-only world going, no one can lose. Everyone must win. The Technocrat’s positive-sum resolutions are ideal, but those opportunities are rare, and Clueless lack the skills to tell genuine world-improvers from pipe dreams. Also, the flashiest and often most effective Sociopaths are those who generate transfer (beneficial to them) through elaborate networks of zero-sum transactions. That requires that others lose, right? Not if today’s losers can be tomorrow’s winners…

VC-istan works this way. Every VC-istan engineer expects to be a “tech lead” in the next gig. Every tech lead expects to be an executive at his next startup. Every executive expects investor contact in order to be a founder in two years. Most VC-istan founders want to be investors so they don’t have to suffer the 90-hour workweeks, low salaries, and career volatility associated with starting a company. In a 100-person VC-istan company, there are 2 founders and 98 people figuring out a way to turn their current employment into a launch pad for future founderdom. That is the real selling point of VC-istan; the founders (and, later, executives) say, “You’ll have my job in two years.” That excuses the laughably low equity allotments that, otherwise, would in no way compensate for the drop in salary and the risk associated with such unproven businesses. Huge promises are made to attract the Clueless, and delivery almost never occurs.

An effort to propagate losses of zero-sum transactions into the future looks a lot like an economic bubble, and that’s exactly where I intend to go with this analysis. When you have Sociopaths and Clueless but no Losers, that’s BubbleWorld. You have a pipeline of zero-sum transfers that looks like value creation, with the losses merely being propagated into the future and delivered to people who are powerless to retaliate.

The first dot-com bubble was a textbook financial bubble.Wall Street didn’t know how to value this new class of companies, and “mistakes were made”. However, that bubble was a lot less evil than many. First, there was genuine, lasting economic value in the Internet, and the bubble was more of a result of humanity’s collective inability to evaluate this new thing than malicious manipulation. Second, the commodity in which the bubble existed (technology stock) was not something people needed to survive; the ongoing housing bubble has been a different matter. Wall Street, for its part, learned a lesson. In the current technology bubble, valuations have been fairly reasonable– for Facebook investors, disappointingly so. This time around, startups are overvalued by young talent. That’s the bubble. There are a lot of people eager to be Clueless in order to try at “a startup”. Since they have no idea how to evaluate equity allotments, growth companies, or job titles in a world where they are poorly defined, they often fall into jobs that are terrible deals for them.

The dot-com crash of 2000 was ugly, but the loss was in paper financial assets, meaning that most of the cost was borne by wealthy individuals. This one’s different. Some of the most talented young people are wagering their time on “social media” concerns in exchange for executive positions and investor contact that will not be delivered. When this bubble pops, they will have lost time that they can never get back.

In this light, we can understand the function that Losers perform, and arrive at an alternative formulation of how the MacLeod tiers form.

As I’ve discussed, Sociopaths can be split into the true Psychopaths and the Technocrats, but this delineation deserves certain scrutiny. It’s tempting to assume that, because the Psychopaths are clearly “bad guys”, that the Technocrats are the “good guys”. This would require us to make it a “true Scotsman” category of limited use. In fact, there are bad Technocrats. Some are inept, some are ruthless, and some are even unethical. What differentiates a Psychopath from a Technocrat is the type of goal that he has. Psychopaths want to play zero-sum games and win; the millennia-old, zero-sum fight for status is what they live for. Technocrats believe they can profit personally through positive-sum endeavors that enable them to win personally because a surplus is generated. It’s important to note that positive-sum does not mean “good” or “right”. It only means that more value is generated to the winners than is lost by the losers. Add to this the subjectivity of “value” or “utility” and one can see that incompetent Technocrats would be actively harmful. Most left-leaning people dislike Ayn Rand and find her to be psychopathic, but I would hazard the guess that she was actually technocratic in her aim: she legitimately believed that her ideas were the foundation of a superior society.

Psychopaths are harmful and generally evil, and they’re self-consistent in this. Technocrats believe they are doing good. Both categories of people can externalize harm. Psychopaths do it callously because they only care about their personal victories and dominance over other people. Technocrats often do it under the belief that more is being won than lost. Many ugly things have been built by Technocrats who believed they were doing the best thing for the world. Some were right, and some were wrong.

Novel organizations are started by MacLeod Sociopaths– Technocrats who embrace risk and disruption, and Sociopaths seeking new ways to eke out advantages over others– because Losers would rather play on an existing, proven team and Clueless don’t know how to start anything. Shortly after genesis, the organization must define a division of labor. Discrepancies in labor beget differences in leverage, which produce variation in compensation. Inequality forms, and the Sociopaths have two strategies for dealing with it. The first is to set up a trade, in which low-status employees win comfort and stability while relinquishing access to high-quality labor and outsized compensation. They won’t get rich, but they’re unlikely to be fired, and can leave at 5:00. That generates a Loser tier that will happily “eat” economic loss (the difference between wages and value rendered) in exchange for these intangible assets that only exist in a low-importance organizational role. The second strategy is to mislead people about their futures within the company and, because of the natural human tendency toward optimistic bias, this isn’t hard to do. That generates the Clueless tier, which is a mechanism for propagating losses into the future.

The typical organizational hierarchy presents the Clueless and a buffer between Losers and Sociopaths, but the Losers also form a buffer between Clueless and Sociopaths. Measured in social status and economic yield, Clueless outrank Losers. However, measured in hedonic terms (yield minus pain and discomfort) the Losers outrank the Clueless. This is a fairly stable arrangement, because both the Losers and Clueless think they’re getting the better deal.

MacLeod Losers probably comprise 80 percent of what we call “Corporate America”. They show up, do enough work to maintain adequate social standing, and go home. They care enough to want to do a good job, but not enough to fight authority or get into “vision” disputes. They’re the muscle of the working world. So why doesn’t VC-istan want them? The answer is that these companies cannot afford to make the Loser trade. Losers are strategic, and many of them are smarter than the Sociopaths who run companies. They want comfort and stability, so when undesirable change comes their way, they realize that the trade offered to them– low status and compensation, in exchange for a secure job where little changes– has ended, and they react. The Loser deal is just intolerable if the stability disappears. Most leave, and a few “wake up” and try to play the Sociopath game, but the Loser tier, as a bulwark of social stability and continuity, ceases to exist. When it melts down, it also clues-in the (formerly?) Clueless who tend to want to “protect” the Losers (cf. Michael Scott’s paternalism). Fast-changing VC-funded startups would rather that it not form in the first place.

The result is that one must recruit the Clueless solely into a tier that merges Clueless and Loser traits and functionality. However, it’s hard to predict how a person will assimilate into the organization. Since these tiers have a contextual nature to them, the game comes down to “pattern matching”: bring in the ones who look Clueless. This gets gendered and racial (favor the risk-seeking gender and the privilege-associated complexion) but especially ageist. VC-istan luminaries (investors and founders) claim that they prefer young people because they haven’t been “corrupted” yet by dysfunctional corporate cultures. (Yet they have no qualms about creating new pathological cultures.) As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this isn’t what happens. Older people don’t, in general, get “corrupted”. They get less Clueless.

In truth, VC-istan is a society of the Clueless, by the Clueless… and for the Sociopaths (who justify the high housing costs in the Bay Area). The MacLeod hierarchy hasn’t been rendered obsolete. It has only been re-adapted into a different form. The loss of the Loser class induces instability, and VC-istan compensates for this by making companies themselves disposable. VC-istan is a world without MacLeod Losers, but not without losers.

Gervais rehash, part III: Markov and management, plus a 4th culture

This is a follow-up to the pair of essays I wrote earlier this week. First, I amended the MacLeod organizational hierarchy to include a fourth category, the Technocrat. Secondly, I began to explore different workplace cultures. Now I’m going to extend the three-culture model to include a fourth. Before I do that, let me revisit the assumptions of the first two essays.

The MacLeod Model assigns unflattering labels to the three tiers of the modern corporation. Workers are Losers, managers are Clueless, and executives are Sociopaths. Examining the behaviors associated with each, we get three baseline traits that organizations use to evaluate the quality of its people: subordinacy, dedication, and strategic orientation. Call these traits the “3 S’s” that organizations use to evaluate the quality of its people. If we treat these traits as binary and look at them in combination, we get up to 8 categories of employees:

Subordinacy  Dedication  Strategy  Category           MacLeod destination
False        False       False     Passive            Fired or Lumpenloser
True         False       False     Yes-Person         Lumpenloser
False        True        False     Loose Cannon       Fired or Lumpenloser
True         True        False     Workhorse          Clueless (middle manager)
False        False       True      Passive-Aggressive Highly variable!
True         False       True      Team-Player        Loser (subordinate)
False        True        True      Self-Executive     Sociopath (executive)
True         True        True      Protege            (unclear)

My original analysis focused on the team-players (MacLeod Losers), the workhorses (MacLeod Clueless), and the self-executives (MacLeod Sociopaths, whom I further divided between the “good Sociopath” Technocrats and the toxic Psychopaths). The assumption I held was that an employee with fewer than two of these three assets would not retain employment, while those with all three were a contradiction in terms. On further inspection, I’ve realized that neither is fully true. The other five possible employee types do exist, and they’re worthy of study. 

The toxic categories (0 or 1 assets)

Passive employees are averse to discomfort, insubordinate, and indiscriminate in their uselessness. They aren’t very interesting, and they tend to be remarkably unsuccessful in any context. Related is the Passive-Aggressive, who is lazy and ornery, but strategic about how lazy to be. Passives almost never rise beyond the lowest levels, but the Passive-Aggressive’s destination is quite variable. In dysfunctional organizations, they can rise high. The Loose Cannon is insubordinate and not strategic, but dedicated. He will work hard toward something, but it may be detrimental. Ultimately, his complete lack of strategy means that his egotism and explosive nature are discovered early and he’ll rarely rise. Finally, the Yes-person is willingly subordinate, but neither strategic nor dedicated, the result of which is that he tends to support management verbally, but not follow through on account of incompetence. 

The normal categories (2 assets)

The Team-Player is the MacLeod Loser. She’s strategic and optimizes for minimal discomfort. Because of this, she aims for social approval. She’d rather be well-liked and “cool” than rise in the organization. She’ll manage her performance to the middle and do what it takes to get along with the team and her boss, but she won’t stay after 5:00. The Workhorse (MacLeod Clueless) is subordinate and sacrificial, but not strategic. She doesn’t recognize a good idea from a bad one and, therefore, indiscriminately works hard on the project put in front of her. Finally, the Self-Executive (MacLeod Sociopath) employee is strategic and dedicated, but not especially subordinate. Self-executive employees tend to view themselves as already in authority over their own careers. In subordinate roles, they see themselves as CEOs of one-person operations.

The conditional category (3 assets)

As I originally set this model forward, I assumed it to be contradictory to be subordinate, strategic, and dedicated. Someone who is strategic will either maximize personal benefit (dedicated, not subordinate) or minimize discomfort (subordinate, not dedicated). What I missed is that it can sometimes be strategic to be subordinate and dedicated– if there’s a career benefit in doing so. This is the elusive and rare eighth category, the Protege. This is the Self-Executive employee who has decided that the best thing for her career is to be taken under the wing of someone more experienced, and to sacrifice some autonomy in exchange for mentorship. It’s a trade. She gets executive buy-in to her career advancement and, in return, the superiors get work with a set of qualities (loyalty, dedication, and strategic insight) that would otherwise be paradoxical.

The Protege category is conditional because if the manager stops investing in her career, she becomes an ordinary Self-Executive. She’s conditionally subordinate, and will seek her own interests if the mentor abandons her. It’s also the most politically tricky, because it requires management to abandon neutrality. Taking one self-executive employee as protege can be seen (correctly) as “playing favorites” by the rest of the team. Workhorses (Clueless) won’t know they’re being disfavored and Team-players (Losers) won’t care enough to do anything about it, but the other Self-executive employees will be alienated.

The organizational destination of Proteges is unclear because it’s often an unstable arrangement. While they are typically fast-tracked to important roles, they are also vulnerable to the political standing of their mentors. Additionally, I should note that the Self-Executive vs. Protege classification is orthogonal to my split of the MacLeod Sociopath into the beneficial (Technocrat) and toxic (Psychopath) categories. Technocrats and Psychopaths are both capable of being strategically subordinate– or strategically insubordinate.

More on work cultures

Originally, I set forth the supposition that there are three types of work cultures:

  • rank cultures, which value subordinacy.
  • tough cultures, which value sacrifice.
  • self-executive (originally market) cultures, which value strategy.

I’m going to make a couple changes to this model. The first is to note that tough and self-executive cultures share some similarities and both deserve the name of “market culture”, which I originally assigned only to the latter. The second is to add a fourth culture. That’s a guild culture, which is driven by the Protege’s conditional subordination. Guild and rank cultures are command cultures. We can again separate these four cultures based on two dimensions. The first dimension is whether the culture is centrally planned (command) or organic (market). The second is whether it is functioning or pathological.

The guild culture is a functioning command culture. There are masters and apprentices, and the relationship is one of mutual benefit. The one with more knowledge and experience is the mentor, and the less experienced inferior is the protege. This is the rarest of the four cultures, being associated with protectionism and pre-capitalistic intent, but the ideas behind it are still seen: most notably, in education. A guild culture’s purpose is to create value through the sharing of knowledge, and to capture it through loyalty in the well-taught. In 2013, with corporate loyalty seen as anachronistic, it’s a dying way of doing things. Companies are not likely to invest in employees when they live under the constant fear of them departing.

Rank culture, on the other hand, is a pathological command culture. Your manager is just your boss. He’s not expected to teach you anything or help you rise in the organization. He gives you orders and you follow them. Rank cultures are extortionate economies in which managers leverage their authority to unilaterally terminate an employee or, at the least, reduce her credibility to zero. In rank cultures, employees don’t work for the company, but for their immediate managers.

Self-executive culture is a functioning market culture. Employees are trusted with their own time and resources and form teams organically, and they’re responsible for delivering value to the business. In software, this is the open allocation methodology, which is sometimes mischaracterized as “work on whatever you want” when it is better described as “work directly for the firm”. This is a great arrangement for intermediate-level employees (who can direct their own progress) and experts, although it’s often not the best at mentoring beginners.

Finally, tough culture is a dysfunctional market culture. Like self-executive cultures, they emphasize individual accountability. However, they don’t trust the employee far enough to create a reasonable market for innovation. Employees must demonstrate value on a daily rather than yearly basis. Autonomy is reduced, deadlines are tighter, and performance and status assessments become so intrusive that they often cause underperformance.

Common transitions

Among these four types of work cultures, there seem to be four common transitions, two in which a functioning culture turns into its dysfunctional counterpart (guild into rank, self-executive into tough) and two in which a dysfunctional culture type evolves into the other (rank into tough, tough into rank). I’ll assess each of these, and what drives them.

Guild cultures turn into rank cultures when the organization either ceases to reward mentorship, or grows too fast to coach people along toward better capabilities. Managers are forced to balance the interests of their superiors against those of their subordinates, and are often required to side with those that sign their checks. If the organization doesn’t maintain a culture of mentorship, that goes away as psychopathic managers who “manage up” get promoted over those who favor their subordinates’ career interests. In the hyperfluid modern economy, most organizations are too paranoid about departing talent to make the long-term investment in their people that a guild culture requires. As the culture of the company’s management becomes increasingly psychopathic, the guild culture disappears and rank culture– serve your boss– is what’s left. Masters and mentors are replaced with rent-seeking position-holders.

Self-executive cultures devolve into tough cultures through a similar managerial devolution in which trust for lower level employees decays. Market cultures hold employees individually accountable for delivering something of value the organization, but the time interval (audit cycle) could be anything from minutes to years. What is the greatest amount of time with which the individual employee is implicitly trusted? Executives with itchy trigger-fingers tend to reduce that time interval and, as it goes to zero, what emerges is tough culture as deadlines become increasingly unreasonable.

Rank cultures are not stable because they tend to harbor underperformers. The best people leave, while those who commit mediocre work but keep their bosses happy are able to stay. Ultimately, this can only go so long before the top executives notice the problem and decide to intervene. Instead of firing being a rare thing that happens to the obviously toxic, some percentage of people will be fired “for performance” each year. Middle managers are not only unsafe, but targeted at higher rates than subordinate employees since they, for tolerating underperformance, are held responsible for the problem. The certainty and stability of the loyalist strategy disappear and people fight for visible work and to make their dedication and sacrifice visible. This turns the rank culture into a tough culture, a reinvention it must undergo because the long-term path of a rank culture is underperformance, lethargy, and death.

Tough cultures, similarly, are unstable. Normal people just can’t stand to work in them for longer than a few months, and very few companies will accept the constant turnover that tough culture induces. For the sake of personal and corporate stability, people start cutting deals, and the people who control the performance assessments become the new rank-holders, first informally, but with their status increasingly formalized over time as they win promotions through deal-making and extortion. One who can guarantee a positive review (which may not be the immediate manager) becomes one’s real boss. Thus, tough cultures return to rank cultures and, the tougher the culture is, the faster this occurs.

Are other transitions possible? Certainly they are, but I contend that they’re uncommon. Pathological work cultures rarely reinvent themselves as functional ones, so regeneracy seems rare. Moving from one pattern of dysfunction to another is easy and can be accomplished with top-down HR initiatives, but executives of large companies don’t really have the tools or incentives to bring a broken culture to fix itself. This seems to induce an “arrow of time” where the entropic direction is cultural failure.

We can model this as a Markov process. Let’s say that, each time step, 10% of self-executive cultures become tough cultures, 10% of guild cultures become rank cultures, 10% of rank cultures become tough cultures, and 40% of tough cultures become rank cultures. The healthy cultures have no in-flow, while there’s a shuffling back between tough and rank cultures. The long-term outcome is that an organization, left to its own devices, will spend four-fifths of its time as a rank culture, and one-fifth of its time as a tough (“crackdown”) culture. That seems about right. The process seems to be punctuated by upper management changes. The new bosses are chagrined by the inefficiency and underperformance they observe (or, perhaps, they were brought in because of underperformance). They kick the organization a few times and it becomes a tough culture. Toughness being unsustainable and deal-making surrounding credibility being inevitable, the best traders of credibility (or extortionists, for the black hat) congeal into the new definition of “rank”. Soon, they themselves become complacent and entitled… and the cycle repeats.

Gervais followup: rank, tough, and market cultures.

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s essay in which I confronted the MacLeod Hierarchy of the organization, which affixes unflattering labels to the three typical tiers (workers, managers, executives) of the corporate pyramid. Subordinate workers, MacLeod names Losers, not as a pejorative, but because life at the bottom is a losing proposition. Lifelong middle managers are the Clueless who lack the insight necessary to advance. Executives are the exploitative Sociopaths who win. I looked at this and discovered that each category possessed two of three corporate traits: strategy, dedication, and subordinacy (which I called “team player” in the original essay). I replaced team player with subordinacy because I realized that “team player” isn’t well-defined. Here, by subordinacy, I mean that a person is willing to accept subordinate roles, without expectation of personal benefit. People who lack it are not constitutionally insubordinate, but view their work as a contract between themselves and manager. They take direction from the manager and show loyalty, so long the manager advances their careers. Since they show no loyalty to a manager or team that doesn’t take an interest in their careers, they get the “not a team player” label.

MacLeod Losers are subordinate and strategic, but not very dedicated. They work efficiently and generally do a good job, but they’re usually out the door at 5:00, and they’re not likely to stand up to improve processes if that will bring social discomfort upon them. Clueless are subordinate and dedicated, but not strategic. They’ll take orders and work hard, but they rarely know what is worth working on and should not advance to upper management. MacLeod Sociopaths are strategic and dedicated, but not subordinate. The next question to ask is, “Is insubordinacy necessarily psychopathy?”, and I would say no. Hence, my decision to split the Sociopath tier between the “good Sociopaths” (Technocrats) and the bad ones, the true Psychopaths.

People who have one or zero of the three traits (subordinacy, dedication, strategy) are too maladaptive to fit into the corporate matrix at all and become Lumpenlosers. People with all three do not exist. A person who is strategic is not going to dedicate herself to subordination. She might subordinate, in the context of a mutually beneficial mentor/protege role, but general subordination is out of the question. Strategic people either decide to minimize discomfort, which means being well-liked team players in the middle of the performance curve– not dedicated over-performers– or to maximize yield, which makes subordinacy unattractive.

What I realized is that, from these three traits, one can understand three common workplace cultures.

Rank Culture

The most common one is rank culture, which values subordinacy. Even mild insubordination can lead to termination, and for a worker to be described as “out for herself” is the kiss of death. Rank cultures make a home for the MacLeod Losers and Clueless, but MacLeod Sociopaths don’t fare well. They have to keep moving, preferably upward.

While the MacLeod Clueless lack the strategic vision to decide what to work on, their high degree of dedication and subordinacy makes them a major tactical asset for the Sociopath. The Clueless middle manager becomes a role model for the Losers. He played by the rules and worked hard, and moved into a position of (slightly) higher pay and respect. 

Rank cultures have, within them, a thermocline. From worker to middle manager, jobs get harder and require more effort to maintain and achieve. Below the thermocline, one really does have to exceed expectations to qualify for the next level up. Above the thermocline, in Sociopath territory, the power associated to rank starts paying dividends and jobs get easier as one ascends, rising into executive ranks where one controls the performance assessment and can either work only on “the fun stuff”, or choose not to work at all. Rank cultures require this thermocline, an opaque veil, to keep the workers motivated and invested in their belief that work will make them free. That is why, in such cultures, the strategically inept Clueless are so damn important.

Tough Culture

Rank culture’s downfall is that, over time, it reduces the quality of employees. The best struggle to rise in an unfair, politicized environment where subordination to local gatekeepers (managers) is more important than merit, and eventually quit or get themselves fired. The worst find a home in the bottom of the Loser tier, the Lumpenlosers. At some point, companies decide that the most important thing to do is clear out the underperformers. Thus is born tough culture. Rank culture values subordinacy above all else; tough culture demands dedication. Sixty hours per week becomes the new 40. Performance reviews now come with “teeth”.

Enron’s executives were proud of their “tough” culture, with high-stakes performance reviews and about 5% of employees fired for performance each year. The firm was berated for its “mean-spirited” and politicized review system that, in reality, is no different from what exists now in many technology companies. This is the “up-or-out” model where if you don’t appear to be “hungry”, you’ll be gone in a year or two. Those who appear to be coasting have targets on their heads.

Over time, tough culture begets a new rank culture, because the effort it demands becomes unsustainable, and because those who control the new and more serious performance review system begin using it to run extortions based on loyalty and tribute rather than objective effort. They become the new rank-holders.

Market Culture

Rank culture demands subordinacy, and tough culture demands dedication. Market culture is one that demands strategy, even of entry-level employees. You don’t have to work 60-hour weeks, nor do you have to be a well-liked, smiling order-follower. You have to work on things that matter.

Rank and tough cultures focus on “performance”, which is an assessment of how well one does as an individual. If you work hard to serve a bad boss, or on an ill-conceived project, you made no mistake. You were following orders. You had no impact, but it wasn’t your fault, and you “performed” well. Market cultures ignore the “performance” moralism and go straight to impact. What did you do, and how did it serve the organization? Low-impact doesn’t mean you’ll be fired, but you are expected to understand why it happened and to take responsibility for moving to higher impact pursuits.

People who serially have low impact, if the company can’t mentor them until they are self-executive, will need to be fired because, if they’re not, they’ll become the next generation’s subordinates and generate a rank culture. Firing them is the hard part, because most of the people who conceive market cultures are well-intended Technocrats (or, in the MacLeod triarchy, “good Sociopaths”) who want to liberate peoples’ creative energies. They don’t like giving up on people. But any market culture is going to have to deal with people who are not self-executive enough to thrive, and if it doesn’t have the runway to mentor them, it has to let them go.

A true market culture is “bossless”. You don’t work for a manager, but for the company. You might find mentors who will guide you toward more important, high-impact pursuits, but that’s your job. In technology, this is the open allocation methodology.

Why Market Culture is best

Market culture seems, of the three, the most explicitly Sociopathic (in the MacLeod sense). Rank cultures are about who you are, and how well you play the role that befits your rank. Tough cultures are about how much you sacrifice, and democratic in that sense. Market cultures are about what you do. Your rank and social status and “personality” don’t matter. Is that dehumanizing? In my opinion, no. It might look that way, but I see it from a different angle. In a rank culture, you’re expected to submit (or subordinate) yourself. In a tough culture, your contribution is sacrifice. In a market culture, you submit work. Of these three, I prefer the last. I would rather submit work to an “impersonal” market than a rank-seeking extortionist trying to rise in a dysfunctional rank culture. 

What I haven’t yet addressed is the cleavage I’ve drawn within the MacLeod Sociopath category between Technocrats and Psychopaths. The most important thing for an organization is the differential fitness of these two categories. Technocrat executives are, on average, beneficial. Psychopaths are unethical and usually undesirable.

Pure rank cultures do not seem to confer an advantage to either category. Tough cultures, on the other hand, benefit Psychopaths who find an outlet for their socially competitive energies. Ultimately, as the tough culture devolves into an emergent rank culture, Psychopaths thrive amid the ambiguity and political turmoil. Tough cultures unintentionally attract Psychopaths.

What about market cultures? I think that Psychopaths actually have a short term advantage in them, and that might seem damning of the market culture. This is probably why rank cultures are superficially more attractive to the Clueless middle-managers, with their dislike of “job hopping” and overt ambition. On the other hand, and much more importantly, market cultures confer the long-term advantage on Technocrats. They’re “eventually consistent”. To thrive in one for the long game, one must develop a skill base and deliver real value. That’s a Technocrat’s game.

Gervais Principle questioned: MacLeod’s hierarchy, the Technocrat, and VC startups

The MacLeod Model of organizational sociology posits that workplaces tend toward a state in which there are three levels:

  • Losers, who recognize that low-level employment is a losing deal, and therefore commit the minimum effort not to get fired.
  • Clueless, who work as hard as they can but fail to understand the organization’s true nature and needs, and are destined for middle management.
  • Sociopaths, who capture the surplus value generated by the Losers and Clueless. Destined for upper management.

Venkatesh Rao has a brilliant analysis of these three tiers as they play out in the sit-com, The Office

I’m going to propose the existence of a fourth subset: the Technocrat. Before doing that, it’s important to assess the forces that generate these tiers, and why I think the MacLeod classification isn’t adequate.

Effort and strategy

Losers are not “losers” in the sense of being unpopular or contemptible people. Here, “Loser” means “one who loses”. In fact, they’re often well-liked and good people. However, they’re aware that employment is a better deal for the other side than it is for them. What they want most is to be comfortable. They don’t want job insecurity or too much change. They’re not “losing”, so much as they’re selling risk, in their poorly-paid jobs. They prefer contests where the points don’t matter (e.g. the Party Planning Committee in The Office) and the comfort of a stable group that will protect them. At work, they generally aim for the Socially Accepted Middling Effort (SAME). They’re not lazy, but the largest influence on how hard they work is social approval. They don’t want to be perceived as slackers, nor as overachievers, so they manage their performance to the middle.

Clueless are the hardest workers. They work as hard as they can, out of a sense of loyalty and ethical obligation. There’s an adverse selection at play that favors the untalented, because people who are naturally talented and hard workers tend to threaten Sociopathic colleagues and will be sabotaged. The survivors tend to be the less capable. Michael Scott, again borrowing from The Office, is a clear example of this. While he’s incompetent, he clearly puts everything he has into his work, having no social life outside of it. If he were more intelligent, he’d either have been tapped for a better role, or he’d be perceived as a threat and be sabotaged by an ambitious Sociopath. However, the less effective and capable Clueless are clearly destined for terminal middle-management roles that Sociopaths don’t want, so this adversity doesn’t often befall them. 

Sociopaths are strategic in their work ethic, but also flexible. As Venkat describes, they’ll fall to the outright bottom, effort-wise, if that frees up resources to impress someone who matters. They have no qualms about reducing their effort to zero in an environment where social attractiveness is more important. However, they’ll also contribute immense bursts of energy when a promotion is available. One core Sociopath skill is assessing whether it’s advantageous to work hard and, when not, to slack off and focus on social polish.

Common traits of the tiers

Of these three subsets, each pair of them has a unifying trait that is considered an asset by the corporate world. Losers and Sociopaths are strategic, Clueless and Sociopaths are dedicated, and Losers and Clueless are team-players. Each of these deserves assessment.

Team-playing (Losers and Clueless)

Companies prefer employees who will prioritize social approval from the team over personal ambitions or needs, and call such a person a team player. The alternative is the out-for-herself careerist who expects interesting work and upward mobility. The selling trait of team players is that they don’t have to be explicitly motivated “from above”. Wanting to do good by the people around them will motivate them organically “for free”, and they’ll ignore being underpaid, ignored, and given few opportunities to advance if the group’s approval is enough to indulge their esteem needs.

Losers are team-players because they want social approval. They want the comfort of being in rather than vying for up. They’re happy with the trophy of ascent into a meaningless in-crowd (in The Office, the Finer Things Club). Their goal is to be cool. Clueless, however, want to be “in charge”. What turns them into team players is the fact that they can be motivated with meaningless leadership accolades, or even undesirable tasks dressed up as positions of power (in The Office, Dwight). Clueless, in general, can’t recognize the difference between the genuine power sought by Sociopaths, social approval sought by Losers, and the ceremonial non-power that Sociopaths and other Clueless generate to keep them motivated.

Of the three traits I will analyze (team-playing, dedication, and being strategic) the most important one for a subordinate position is team-playing. Even if a person is highly competent, if she’s not well-liked by her team, she won’t be effective in a low-level position, because no one will help her. Subordinate positions never involve enough autonomy for a person to have a real achievement on her own. As Venkat Rao correctly assesses it, Sociopaths in subordinate roles have a short lifespan, limited by their willingness to run a team-player charade. It’s up-or-out for them. Ryan, in The Office, does this brilliantly. He uses his relationship with air-headed Loser Kelly to hide his true nature and underplay his threatening intelligence– seeming like an incompetent Loser– but once he finds common ground (his MBA degree) with CFO David Wallace, he takes the chance to jump and, on success, dumps her immediately.

Dedication (Clueless and Sociopaths)

For Losers, most of life is outside of work. Losers will put in their 40 hours, but if you ask one to work a weekend or do undesirable tasks that are way outside of her job description, you’ll get resistance. For the Loser, it’s “just a job”, and not something that has the right to dominate a person’s entire life. Losers aren’t lazy or apathetic, but they’re rationally disengaged. A loser recognizes that she can get an equivalent job at another company, so it’s group cohesion only that keeps them in place.

Clueless and Sociopaths, on the other hand, can work 90 hours per week without complaint. They’ll do their best to meet unreasonable requests from above, but their motivations are very different. Clueless are driven by a misguided sense of corporate loyalty, both above and below them. The Clueless middle-manager (or over-performing team member) is willing to please her boss, on whom she depends for her connection to the company (to which she feels a debt of gratitude). She’s also willing to pick up the slack of the Losers on her team, out of a sense of personal and possibly parental loyalty to them.

Sociopaths are dedicated for a different reason. Like anyone else, a Sociopath would prefer not to work long hours or do unpleasant tasks, but their pain tolerance is extremely high, because the corporate game is fun to them. For a Sociopath, a 90-hour work week is like spending that much time playing a video game. It’s not how most adults would choose to spend their lives, but it’s not taxing, boring or painful either. If the rewards are there, the Sociopath will drop everything and put in the hours.

For a middle manager, dedication is the most important trait. Middle managers frequently find themselves in two jobs that are often at odds. On one hand, they have to clean up the messes left by rationally disengaged Loser subordinates. On the other hand, they must please the hard-driving Sociopaths above them. This generates not only a lot of work, but an incoherent, heterogeneous mess of it. Frequently, they end up working on “whatever’s left” and putting in a lot more energy than the tiers below and above them. The Loser subordinates don’t work as hard as they do. The Sociopath executives have enough power to control the division of labor and definition of “performance”, so they don’t have to work hard. Middle-managers get stuck in the middle, and it takes dedication to survive it.

Strategy (Losers and Sociopaths)

Losers and Sociopaths might seem to be polar opposites, but they also share an important trait: they’re strategic. They’re realistic in their assessment of what efforts will be fruitful and, unlike the Clueless with their unconditional work ethic, they allocate their time and energies only toward work that seems to be worth a damn. In this, they tend also to be able to relate amicably, because their strategies rarely conflict.  They want different things. Losers want to minimize discomfort and to be “cool” as defined by the in-crowd where they are. Sociopaths want to maximize personal reward and rise into the in-crowd that actually has power.

Strategic workers tend not to waste time. Losers work efficiently but tend to do as little as they need to retain social acceptability. Contrary to stereotype, they don’t do “the minimum not to get fired”. They modulate their efforts to the middle, not wanting a slacker reputation, but not wanting a “busy bee” reputation that will overload them with undesirable work. Sociopaths (and Technocrats, to be discussed later) work on the stuff that benefits their careers, and ignore whatever doesn’t.

For upper-management roles, being strategic is the most important trait. A non-strategic manager or executive will put a lot of effort into pursuits of low or even negative value. That can be acceptable for a middle manager. The Sociopaths above will set priorities, and direct him, while the social-approval mechanisms of the strategically-aware Losers will keep the team from going completely off the rails. Teams can protect themselves, in the short term, from off-the-rails Clueless management. A non-strategic executive is dangerous, if not untenable. Losers, in fact, tend to be better picks for executive roles than Clueless. This explains why, after Peter outs himself as a disengaged Loser to “The Bobs” in Office Space– while office conformity demands that subordinates fake Clueless earnestness around authority– they describe him as “a straight shooter with upper management written all over him”. He’s strategic. He understands that his current job is not worth doing.

Other possibilities…

All three of these traits are attributes that corporations view as assets: being a team-player, dedication, and being strategic. I’ve painted a picture in which each of the three MacLeod tiers has exactly two of the three. Losers are strategic team players, but not dedicated. Clueless are dedicated team-players, but not strategic. Sociopaths are dedicated and strategic, but not team players. This brings us to the question: why should an employee have exactly two of these seemingly orthogonal capabilities? What happens to people with zero, one, or three?

Deficient categories (0/3 and 1/3 traits)

If someone’s neither dedicated nor strategic, it doesn’t matter much whether that person’s a team player or not. A team player sacrifices personal ambitions for the health of the team, but people who are neither dedicated nor strategic have nothing credible to sacrifice. These fall into the bottom of the Loser category: Lumpenlosers.

Dedicated, non-strategic, non-team-players are Loose Cannons (see: Andy in The Office). They’re driven by ego, but have no insight into whether what they’re doing serves any purpose (personal or organizational) at all. They tend to eagerly throw themselves into battles with no idea where they will lead. Either they are fired, or they become Lumpenlosers as well, being tolerated for the amusement they provide.

Finally, to be strategic but neither a team-player nor dedicated is almost a contradiction in terms. A strategic person will recognize that one or the other is necessary in order to retain employment in the long term. So, the only time this constellation occurs is when a person has little interest in staying with a company. They usually quit or get fired.

Unicorns? (3/3 traits)

Are there people out there who are strategic, dedicated, and team players? I would also argue that this arrangement is contradictory, at least in a subordinate role. A strategic person will either aim for minimal discomfort and pain, or for maximal benefit. The first category will avoid conflict and disharmony (team player) but not work long hours, especially not to an extent that hurts the group (by making others look bad in comparison). On the other hand, the yield-maximizer will work very hard (dedication) but not for the benefit of a social group coalesced around someone else’s purpose. People who are strategic and dedicated will demand important roles and interesting work, which means they’re not likely to be perceived as team players.

This is not to say, however, that it’s impossible or even rare for a person to be strategic, dedicated, and a good person. What I do mean to imply is that strategic and dedicated people don’t accept subordination. Although they will work for altruistic purposes or the good of “the team”, they do it on their terms. In fact, I would argue that among the most important players in the modern economy, a fair number of them fit this exact description. Like MacLeod Sociopaths, they’re dedicated and strategic. However, the term “Sociopath” doesn’t apply, because they aren’t bad people, and they’re not willing to rise by being unethical. They want to win, but fairly. This requires revisiting the Sociopath category.

Are MacLeod Sociopaths really sociopaths?

I would argue that the Sociopath category should be split into two subsets: Technocrats, and the true Psychopaths.

It’s important to address the term sociopath. It’s no longer used in psychiatry, having been replaced by psychopath. A psychopath is a person without a conscience, and that’s about as close as modern psychiatry gets to calling someone “a bad person”. Most psychopaths are, as typically defined, bad people. Their lack of empathy and concern for others leads then toward reckless and harmful behavior. Whether this is mental illness or sane moral depravity is almost a religious question, but either way, psychopaths aren’t desirable in an organization, but many are very successful climbers of institutional ladders. The lower classes of psychopaths end up as common criminals, but the smartest and most socially adept psychopaths develop strategies for externalizing costs and taking credit for others’ accomplishments. They are disproportionately common in the upper ranks of corporations.

Sociopath is a pop-psychology synonym for “psychopath”, most likely persisting because the popular ear conflates the latter with “psycho” or “psychotic”, which psychopaths are clearly not. It is not even clear that psychopaths are mentally ill. I would argue that, in a prehistoric evolutionary context, their lack of emotional attachment to others made them individually successful (high rates of reproduction, at least for men) at the expense of group harmony and stability. In modern society, they are the cancer cells– individually fit at the expense of the large, complex body of civilization. This is different from typical mental illness (especially psychosis) which is undisputedly pathological, making the individual less fit.

Psychopaths are egotistical and usually unethical. Above all, they desire social status. Money and power are only interesting to them so far as they confer an elevated position over others. This characterization, one hopes, does not apply to everyone who is strategic and dedicated within an organization. I find it clear that it does not. There are good people who are strategic and dedicated. So I add a fourth category: the Technocrat. So I discard MacLeod’s Sociopath category, and split it into the Technocrat and the true Psychopath.

In this usage, Technocrat pertains more to the abstract principle of technology– the use of knowledge in pursuit of mutual benefit– than to any concrete device. Technocrats are dedicated and strategic and, like Psychopaths, they want to win. What differentiates them is that they don’t want to make others lose. Technocrats have a positive-sum mentality and a desire to make improvements that benefit everyone. True psychopaths despise what they perceive as human weakness and want to dominate people. Technocrats are competing against “the world” in the effort to make it better than it has ever been.

Because Technocrats like to improve things, they extend this mentality to their work and themselves. They want to be more skilled, and more autonomous, so they can achieve more. They’re dedicated, because it requires work to find “win-win” opportunities. They’re strategic, because what they do tends to require creativity. In general, they’re not team players. Losers are team players because they fear social disapproval, and Clueless if they perceive their role as leadership (even if it’s objectively not). Psychopaths view the team as something to exploit (for personal gain) and to dominate (for enjoyment). Technocrats want to improve the team, often in spite of itself. This makes them good leaders, but they turn out to be shitty subordinates. That, in fact, is the Technocrat’s downfall. Of the four classes, they are the absolute worst in subordinate positions. Psychopaths hate subordination as well, but they’re better at failing silently for long enough to move up.

The MacLeod model correlates psychological traits with organizational position, and the Technocrat is difficult to pin down. Other categories are much easier. Losers cannot typically rise into management because they aren’t dedicated. Clueless should not become executives because they aren’t strategic. (It happens, but they usually get fired at some point.) Psychopaths can rise without limit, but their lack of a team-player ethos means they’re fired if they can’t find a route. There isn’t a clear position in the traditional managerial hierarchy for the Technocrat. Organizations would probably prefer to have Technocrats over Psychopaths in upper management, if they were rational entities. They’re not, and for a variety of reasons, when Technocrats and Psychopaths battle, the Psychopaths usually win.

Technocrats don’t have a well-defined home in the white-collar corporation. They despise the pointless busywork of subordinate positions, so they don’t do well in the Loser circuit. They tend to be logical truth-seekers, so the Clueless world of middle-management is too full of self-deception for them. Finally, amid the zero-sum in-fighting of Psychopaths in the executive suite, they often lose. Why do they often lose? That I will address below.

Some Technocrats have found a way to become highly-paid individual contributors, such as in academia, research, and software engineering. Unfortunately, this isn’t a stable arrangement for most. Academia has taken a Clueless direction of late: graduate students and pre-tenured professors are grunts, and tenured professors are (semi-autonomous) middle managers chasing rainbows. I consider most of them non-strategic because they lack interest in the practicality of their work, a behavioral pattern that has reduced their social status over time. Software engineering, on the other hand, is mostly a (better-paid) Loser’s world, because most of the work that professional developers get is line-of-business dreck that isn’t intellectually challenging, and not worth the dedication that a genuinely important or interesting project would deserve.

The typical career of a Technocrat looks similar to one of a Psychopath: job hopping, up-or-out gambits, and the obvious prioritization of a personal strategy over “team player” social acceptability. The difference is the purpose toward which she aims. The Technocrat wants to become really great at something and do something good for the world. The Psychopath wants to climb old-style, increasingly anachronistic, industrial hierarchies and dominate (or, at least, exploit) others. Both are after power, but they define it differently. Technocrats seek the power to help people; Psychopaths want power over people.

One might suspect that Technocrats should succeed as entrepreneurs, and this is probably the Technocrat’s best bet. Rather than attempting to find a decent role in an existing, dysfunctional organization that it will be impossible for her to fix, she should create a new one. Then, she has no conflict between her strategic and dedicated nature and being a “team player”, because she has built and defined the team.

What I would say, however, is that the venture-capital-funded startup ecosystem (VC-istan) is not a Technocrat’s paradise, despite its pretensions to that effect. The actual ethical behavior of the leadership at most of these VC darling startups is old-style managerial Psychopathy. Why is it this way? To answer that, one needs to understand what VC-istan actually is: one of the first postmodern corporations. VCs are supposed to be in competition with one another, but they collude. They decide, as a group, who’s hot and who’s not, and what valuations will look like in each season, and they get together and co-fund startups. There is no market economy. Rather, funding decisions are made by a command economy driven by social consensus among an in-crowd (partners at influential VC firms) and those who wish to join them.

One might think that VC-funded startup founders are Technocrats. Not likely. These so-called CEOs are actually mid-level Product Managers within the postmodern corporation of VC-istan. Some are ascendant Psychopaths seeking a transition to a more senior (“entrepreneur-in-residence”, VC associate, corporate executive) role and others are Clueless “true believers” who fail to recognize that, due to their investors’ unilateral control not only over their current projects but over their long-term reputations, they’re nothing but eager middle managers.

So where are the Technocrats, then? Over time, they tend to fail out of hierarchical organizations, being ill-equipped to fight against the Psychopaths who tend to defeat them. As VC-istan increasingly devolves into a postmodern corporation (rather than a real market, with– imagine this!– actual competition among investors) they will be increasingly out-of-home there, as well. I don’t know where they’ll go. My guess is that the rising generation of Technocrats will find a way to democratize business formation, with crowdfunding (e.g. Kickstarter) being an obvious first step in that direction, and presumably a lot more to come.

Why Psychopaths beat Technocrats

Why do the zero-sum, destructive Psychopaths defeat the positive-sum, creative Technocrats? To answer this, it’s important to understand credibility, which is an umbrella term for intangible assets that institutions create in order to rank people by perceived merit.

How do organizations decide how to compensate people, and whom to promote? When a person starts a new job, her salary is based on economic conditions and her negotiation skill much more than any objective definition of merit. Companies, begrudgingly, accept this. They recognize the tradeoff between operational efficiency and fairness in compensation, and will gladly adapt salaries to conditions. However, companies prefer to believe that they get the division of labor and recognition right. It’s important for them to maintain this fiction, because it allows them to believe that, although they know their compensation schedule to be unfair, they know exactly how unfair it is and can reduce the injustice (not out of ethical principle, but because it’s a morale risk) over time. If Bob and Mark are both Level IV software engineers making $100,000 and $120,000 per year, respectively, Bob can receive better annual raises until they’re at parity.

This is what professional ladders and job titles are for. The firm wants to believe (or, at least, wants the Clueless to believe, that often being enough) that, while small injustices are tolerated in specific individual compensation, that salary ranges shall be set according to job descriptions, which will be assigned according to pure merit. Someone who is “platonically” at Level IV might get a higher salary based on prior compensation, negotiation skill, and market conditions, but he should never get a Level-V title… until he earns it. Titles, as the organization perceives them, must correspond to personal merit and work performance, not external conditions.

This is credibility, which represents the company’s degree of trust in an individual. Compensation is what a person takes out of a company. Credibility is what the firm thinks the person puts into it. Job titles are a powerful form of credibility, being transferrable to some degree across companies. So-called “performance” reviews exist to calibrate private credibility based on a person’s work history, and may eventually result in public credibility changes through promotions (or demotions and terminations). Societies understand that resources (power, money, information) sometimes accrue to unworthy or even dangerous individuals, and that there is nothing to prevent “the bad rich” from acquiring mere commodities once this has happened, but the sacred intangible of trust is supposed to be above that. Credibility is the corporate analogue of trust, invented because interpersonal trust becomes sparse at scale. Large organizations recognize that genuine trust, built through direct interaction, is not enough to tie people together, so they need to invent a legible pseudo-trust in order for anything to get done. Credibility is a currency that corporations mint in order to make statements about how far a person can be trusted. You’re not supposed to be able to get credibility through trade. It should be a reward for the demonstration merit only.

Credibility isn’t just a vague, academic notion. It has actual effects. For example, a common way for a company to do a layoff is to select levels at which it is overstaffed, and terminate the highest-compensated at that level. The idea is that employees at each level are equal in productive value. It’s corporate consistency. Thus, the most marginal employees, who should be let go first, are the highest-paid at the targeted level. Let’s say that the Level IV salary range is $80,000 to $120,000 and the Level V range is $100,000 to $160,000. It’s dangerous to be a Level IV at $120,000– but very safe to be a Level V at the exact same salary.

Is this regime exploitable? Of course. Clueless might believe that there’s such a thing as a “platonic” Level IV, and that people will be accurate assessed and promoted to their level of ability. That’s not true. There is no “platonic” Level IV or Level V. There will be guidelines based on work experience and interview performance, and then myriad possible exceptions. A wise negotiator slotted for Level IV, if he knew the company’s HR infrastructure, would target his salary history and expectations toward $125,000, making him ineligible for a Level-IV position. Would the hiring manager say, “We can’t meet that”, and turn him away? Or would she bump him to Level V, not only justifying his salary, but improving his job security, leadership opportunities, and level of respect within the company? Unless he were very clearly ineligible for a Level-V position, the latter would happen. So he would, in effect, be using his negotiation skills to win credibility. In the real world, credibility is just as negotiable and tradable as “harder” currencies like money, power, and information. It’s not “supposed” to be that way, but it is.

Losers care about credibility, but only enough to retain employment. Once they have enough of it, they focus on side games in which those games’ local definitions of credibility and status don’t really matter, in that they have no effect on personnel decisions or compensation. Clueless believe deeply in credibility and go about earning it “the old-fashioned way”, which is to earn it through hard work. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are the quickest to actually realize what credibility is: a corporate fiction. In reality, it’s a commodity like any other. If they need someone to vouch for them, they find a way to buy it. Psychopaths bribe and extort their way into credibility. They take credit for others’ work, they lie, and they find ways to trade social assets (including titles and “job performance”) that aren’t “supposed” to be for sale.

How do Technocrats handle credibility? I’m not sure. Since the intended effect of corporate credibility is to create a global social status in large groups that would otherwise not have a clear rank ordering, thus generating a sort of “permanent record” that’s ripe for abuse by power, it seems naturally opposed to the Technocrat ethos. However, it’s also clear that corporations need to invent credibility, because interpersonal trust is too sparse at scale for large organizations to function, and credibility becomes a lubricant. To the extent that Technocrats accept credibility’s existence, they tend to treat it as an engineering problem. I think the Technocrat’s objective is to fix credibility: to redefine it so that it can’t be traded, bought, or won through extortion, and to make it an actual dimension of merit. Of course, this is a hard, if not impossible, problem. Psychopaths take a much easier route with more personal benefit: they find ways to exploit it.

Indeed, these four categories can be framed in terms of psychological reactions to the divergence between true merit and corporate credibility:

  • Clueless deny it and persist in the just world fallacy. Indeed, credibility’s root power is in its ability to motivate and impress the Clueless. 
  • Losers accept the crookedness of the corporate game and disengage, grabbing just enough credibility to avoid adversity.
  • Psychopaths become crooked themselves, which is the fastest path to personal benefit, and ultimately win not only credibility for themselves but the capacity to modulate others’ credibility, which is corporate power.
  • Technocrats attempt to fix the game, often altruistically through openness, transparency, and anti-hierarchical corporate structures. So far, they haven’t shown much success in deploying their vision at scale.

Between Psychopaths and Technocrats, who is more likely to climb the corporate ladder? Unfortunately, the advantage is with the former. Technocrats have to change people, while Psychopaths exploit them as they are.

Corporations, being pre-industrial in their ideology, have relied heavily on credibility and personal relationships for an obvious reason. There weren’t many hard problems for these institutions (rent-seekers that used technological innovation, but rarely created it) to solve, and there was no other way to evaluate people. Once the hard intellectual challenges have been overcome and it’s a risk-averse, stable organization, then how does it define the “best” who deserve leadership positions? How does one define “merit”? The Losers don’t attend that debate, because they don’t care. The Clueless say, “Hard work”. Technocrats argue for creativity and insight, still wanting to tackle hard problems that the now-stable and risk-averse organization believes it has outgrown. Psychopaths form an alliance with the Clueless, recognizing them as effective (in well-defined roles) but non-threatening. What’s built up, then, is a concept of “performance” that, to the Clueless, looks like a commodity earned only through hard work: a credibility. Clueless provide the muscle and blind support that enable credibility to be manufactured; Psychopaths define it. However, the Psychopaths are always careful to define performance with enough back-doors that they can win, regardless of whether they wish to work hard. At the top, this is especially easy. If you control the division of labor, you get to write your own performance review.

What Psychopaths recognize is that credibility can always be bought on a black market. There are always ways to get it, and often the illicit ones are more effective than the straightforward path. Technocrats understand this as well, but they often find it morally objectionable to start trading. It feels like cheating to them, and the worst varieties of credibility-trading (which generally amount to professional extortion) they refuse to use at all.

Can Technocrats win?

Psychopaths and Technocrats are destined for conflict. Psychopaths invent social credibilities to win the support of the Clueless and put themselves at the top of organizations. Technocrats see a crooked game and try to fix it, often with radical honesty. If the Technocrats succeed, they’ll undermine the work of the Psychopaths. This becomes a fight to the death. The character of an organization will be determined by which of these two categories wins. Ultimately, most organizations will be run by Psychopaths who superficially adopt the appearance of Technocrats. This becomes increasingly the case as corporations become risk-averse and self-protective. The positive-sum “win-win” outcomes that Technocrats seek exist, and they’re all over the place, but they never come without risk. Once the company decides that creative risks are intolerable, what’s left is zero-sum social-status-driven squabbling.

The MacLeod hierarchy applies best to the modern white-collar corporation, whose modern incarnation was developed in the 1920s. At the time, there were a decent number of Technocratic leaders, but over time, corruption set in. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that Psychopaths were going to take over, and the “greed is good” 1980s saw that through. Basic research was cut, academia turned into a pyramid scheme, and well-positioned corporate executives made millions. Psychopaths gutted and looted corporations, leaving husks– large, powerful institutions whose beneficial purposes had been discarded, leaving mere patterns of externalized costs and value-capture by the Psychopaths. Where’d the excluded Technocrats go? Well, all over the place, but the most well-known cohort moved to Silicon Valley– before it was cool.

Silicon Valley is not a Technocrat haven any more. If nothing else, one need only look at house prices in the Bay Area. In cases of extreme geographic scarcity (e.g. San Francisco, Manhattan) house prices might be explicable by supply and demand in a fair, because supply responds slowly to economic circumstances while the demand curve moves quickly. However, when extreme housing prices persist over the long term, and over a large and mostly suburban area where there is no natural geographic scarcity, this suggests market manipulation and NIMBYism. That’s the surest sign ever that Psychopaths are winning. I am not saying this to rag on California. (I live in Manhattan; we have expensive real estate and Psychopaths, too.) In fact, had California’s real estate problem reversed itself, I’d argue that it was a transient market phenomenon and not Psychopathic victory. However, even when the economy softened, Bay Area real estate remained pricey. That’s a primary indicator that the Psychopaths have started to win. Psychopaths love when real estate is expensive, because they can use physical position to display dominance. Technocrats, on the other hand, love New Places, because New Places are positive-sum– you can build cool things on inexpensive, unused territory and improve it. The Technocrats poured into California when it was a geographic New Place and land was cheap. Now the New Places are elsewhere. It’s not clear what the next Technocratic New Place is, or even if “Place” still needs to be a geographic location, but it’s no longer Northern California.

If I had to guess, though, I’d bet that within the next 10 years, VC-istan will fall under the weight of its own organizational Psychopathy. I don’t have enough personal experience to opine on whether VCs themselves are Psychopathic, but the VC darlings thatI’ve known well have been run by some horrible people. Mark Pincus has been most overt about his psychopathy, but his behavior is far from atypical among the sorts of people who win in this bubble-world. Once, I had to leave a junior-executive position (for which I had left Google) at a brand-name, VC-funded startup at 3.5 months because I refused to sign an affidavit that not only contained perjury, but probably would have Pincus’d ten on my colleagues who had joined early and had “too much” equity. The Psychopathic management of that company spent months afterward attempting to destroy my reputation. How I overcame that adversity deserves its own essay, for another time…

Psychopaths defeat Technocrats in an organization where the work is intellectually easy, creatively non-demanding, and social status ends up trumping ability. That describes most organizations, because most companies are too risk-averse to do anything hard or important. Needless to say, Psychopaths love economic bubbles– exploitable, chaotic optimism without substance– and the 2010-13 “social media” affair clearly qualifies. However, this bubble’s very different from the last one. In the 1997-2000 bubble, startups were overvalued by the market. Wall Street provided the fools. In this one, market valuations appear reasonable. Investors aren’t going to fall for that one again. This bubble is in the unduly high value assessed, by young talent, to subordinate positions in these startups. (I wrote this, last summer, to contribute to its inevitable “pop”.) The fools aren’t coming form Wall Street, but fresh out of school. Most employees of these VC-funded “tech startups” believe they’re 6 months away from investor contact, real job titles, and the chance to be a founder in the next startup. They’re wrong. Long before they can collect the career assets they’ve been promised, this bubble will have popped and washed back to sea, leaving them with useless work experience and, thanks to the high cost-of-living in the startup hubs, no savings. The 1990s dot-com bubble wrecked a few careers and spilled a lot of rich peoples’ money. The 2010s bubble will spill a little bit of rich peoples’ money and wreck a lot of careers– mostly, those of young technologists trying to establish themselves. I would argue that this makes it worse.

What I hope to see during 2013, and the coming years, is a Flight to Substance. I want the best people– investors, entrepreneurs, engineers– to realize that they’ve been hoodwinked by VC-istan’s shallow reinvention of the corporate system as something different and “cooler”, and to demand a return to Real Technology. I want to see better ideas, better companies, and better cultures. I want to see funding for research and development, so that people can do intellectually interesting work without being thrown into the secondary labor market that academia has become. I want to see a world in which people actually care about solving hard problems and delivering real value. When this happens, the Technocrats can win again.

Tech Wars

Any creative field undergoes periods of divergence and convergence, and technology is no exception. Right now, we’re in the late swing of a divergent phase, with a plethora of new languages, frameworks, paradigms and methodologies so vast that it’s impossible, at this point, even to know a respectable fraction of them. There are “back-end programmers” who know nothing of Javascript, and “front-end guys” who’ve never used a profiler. That will end, as people grow tired of having to learn a new technology stack with every job change, and also as the dimensionality of the bilateral matching problem between engineers and employers becomes intolerable. As painful as convergence can be, such a time will come out of necessity.

For a single company, convergence is often enforced internally, with “approved tools” lists and style guides. Often the communication that drives these decisions takes a familiar form: flame wars.

These partisan fights are common in technology. There’s one set of programmers who believe Java is the only language that has a right to exist and that, if you’re not using an IDE, you’re using “stone tools”. There’s another contingent that thinks everything should be written in Ruby, because that’s what Rails is in and why do we need another goddamn language? There’s a third that’s fixated on C++ on the basis that, if you can’t manage memory, how can you make sure an application performs? For now, I don’t care who’s right in this– really, that depends on the problem, because there clearly isn’t “one language to rule them all”– and language or style comparisons are not what I care to discuss today. I think we can all agree these flame wars are stupid and counterproductive. Do tabs/spaces debates really require long email chains? No, they don’t.

This, if anything, is the thing I dislike second-most about programmers. The worst thing about programmers is that most of them (although this is a largely a product of a corporate environment that rewards mediocrity) lack taste and curiosity, and therefore never become competent. The second-worst is that, among those who have taste, most of the heated debates come down to superficial nonsense. Yes, code quality matters. It’s critically important; it can make or wreck a company. Cosmetic differences, on the other hand, are just not that important or interesting. Tooling choices are important, but rarely as critical as opinionated engineers make them out to be, in the sense that they’re rarely existential matters for the company. Closed allocation is cultural death, and unethical management will ruin your startup, but the difference between Python and Scala is unlikely to be lethal. Can you write performant systems using mostly Python? Of course. Can high-quality, attractive code be written using an inelegant language like C++? Yes, it can. I have strong preferences regarding languages, but I’ve learned over the years not to take them too seriously. More dangerous than picking a suboptimal language is not getting any work done because of partisan bickering.

Language and tool wars are an outgrowth of a careerist idiocy that one would expect software engineers to be above. Engineers engage in this hyperbolic mudslinging because their career needs, in a typical corporate power struggle, often necessitate some control over the technical environment– and that’s often a zero-sum squabble. The software industry isn’t a real meritocracy, but it insists on looking like one, so the object of the game is to convince the team to use the tools with which one is most familiar, in order to become (because of tool fit, not intrinsic superiority) the most productive. This is the problem with technology in the late-autumn phase of a divergent spell: an engineer’s job performance is going to be more of a function of his match with the work environment and tools than of his overall competence, so there’s an enormous incentive to change the game if one can. There’s more individual gain in changing existing technical choices than grinding away at regular work. Most software engineers have learned this, and I can’t count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a company go through a scorched-earth code rewrite because some douchebag managerial favorite only knew one language, and (of course) that language became the only possible option for the firm. This is terrible for the company that has to reinvent all of its technical assets, but beneficial to the favorite who naturally becomes the master of the new technical universe.

In a world of tight deadlines, short employment stints, and extremely detailed job requirements, this is only getting worse. It’s no longer acceptable to spend months in a “ramp up” period on a new job. It won’t get a person fired, but you’re unlikely to get the best projects if you don’t blow someone away in your first 3 months. So you need to find or carve out a niche where you can use tools you already know, in order to get some macroscopic achievement (a “launch”) as soon as possible. This forces companies into one of two undesirable alternatives. The first (sprawling divergence) is to let everyone use the tools they like, and the predictable result is “siloization” as engineers stick to the tools they already know how to use, rather than take the time to understand what other people are doing. Taking these systems into production and supporting them becomes a nightmare, because they often have 7 different NoSQL databases to support what’s essentially a CRUD app. The other (enforced convergence) is to require certain uniformity in development. The company becomes an “X Shop” for some specific language (or database, or methodology) X. That’s when the flame wars begin, because everyone is going to have an enormous stake in the choice of X. Now, it’s not enough for X to be the best tool for your project; you have to shove X down other peoples’ throats in the company, or you won’t be able to use it at all. This also falls down as necessity requires exceptions to the uniformity requirements, and the decision of who can get an exception becomes immensely political.

In truth, we as programmers are, in many companies, behaving like executives, spending more time arguing about how to do work than doing the actual work.

This, I think, is the fall-down calamity of the software industry. It’s why 50 percent of people who are professional programmers won’t be, seven years from now. Software engineering is all about improvement– building things that didn’t exist before, automating tedious processes– and it’s only natural that we want to improve ourselves. In order to get better, one needs a reliable stream of increasingly high-quality projects. What makes great software engineers extremely rare (and they are) isn’t a lack of talent alone; the limiting factor is the paucity of quality work. At a certain point, one reaches a level where it’s difficult to get quality work, even for a qualified (or overqualified) engineer. You end up spending more time convincing managers to give you good projects (playing politics, acquiring control of the division of labor) than you actually get to spend on the work. People get enervated and drop out, or they become managers and lose touch with the day-to-day process of writing code. Tooling wars are one component of this nasty slog that programmers have to enter in order to have a shot at the best work.

What’s the solution? I mentioned the alternative to uniformity, which is the “everyone uses whatever they want” divergent approach that often generates an intolerable support burden. It can work, but it will fail in the typical hierarchical corporation. When you have this proliferation of creativity and ideas, you need two things. First, there has to be a pruning process, because some of what is produced won’t be very good. Managers never get this right. Their decisions on what modules to keep (and, thereby, force engineers to maintain and use) and which ones to burn will be based on political factors rather than code or product quality. Second, it requires extremely strong cross-hierarchical communication, because it requires that people begin to make technical choices based on the long-term benefit of the group rather than short-term “productivity” in an attempt to acquire status. People who are building technical assets will need to actually give a damn about making their clients succeed, as opposed to the selfish, parochial goal of pleasing managers. You won’t get this kind of communication and pay-it-forward attitude– not as prevailing behaviors, rather than occasional serendipities endowed by the comfortable– in a closed-allocation company.

The open-allocation sociology is one in which there is cross-hierarchical collaboration because the conceptual hierarchy necessitated by the problem doesn’t congeal into a rigid hierarchy of people. Because there’s so much internal mobility, other teams are potential future teammates, and people will generally treat them well. What this means is that, while there will be divergence in the name of exploration and creative license, people will also take care of the convergence tasks, such as integrating their work with the rest of the company and teaching other teams how to use the assets they generate.

For a contrast, the closed-allocation sociology is one in which people strive, in the short term, for the image of superior productivity, in order to advance rapidly into a role where they control the division of labor instead of being controlled by it. This encourages people to diverge carelessly, for the twin purposes of (a) appearing highly productive and useful, and (b) creating personal security by generating technical assets that, although management can be convinced of their importance through political means, become so opaque to use as to leave other teams beholden to their creator. Of course, this productivity is illusory, the reality being that costs are externalized to the rest of the company. The heavy-handed, managerial antidote is to mandate convergence, but that inducing battles regarding which technologies and approaches live and which die. The result are hyperbolic, counterproductive and fear-driven arguments that devolve into the technical flame wars we all know and loathe.

As long as we have hierarchical corporations and closed-allocation regimes where one must either control the division of labor or be controlled by it, we will have endless flame wars over even the smallest of technical choices. The stakes are too high for them not to exist.

Psychopathy and superficial reliability

Lord Acton says: judge talent at its best and character at its worst. This is a wise principle, yet it fails us miserably when misapplied, as it often is in modern society. Why is that? The world is large, so our knowledge of each is extremely sparse. We often lack the information necessary to judge either talent or character well well. The consequence of information sparsity in judgment of talent is the existence of celebrity. It’s better to have everyone know that you’re a 6, than to be a 10 in secret. This itself is not so dangerous, but the contest for visibility, even in supposed meritocracies like the software industry, gets destructive quickly. Even in small companies, more effort is often expended to gain control of the division of labor (thus, one’s own visibility and reputation) than is spent actually completing the work. The fact that awful people are excellent at office politics is so well-known that it requires no documentation. It becomes visible within the first 6 months of one’s working life. This makes assessment of character as important as the judgment of skill and talent. Is the guy with the flashy resume a legitimate 99.99th-percentile talent, or a degenerate politicker and credit-taker who managed to acquire credibility? Reference checking is supposed to solve that, and it doesn’t work. I’ll get to that, a little bit later.

Information sparsity in the assessment of talent is a known danger, but I tend to see it as a short-term and minor threat. There’s probably an eventual consistency to it. Over time, people should converge to levels of challenge, responsibility, and influence commensurate with their ability. More dangerous, and infinitely more intractable, is the information sparsity that pertains to character. People tend to overestimate, by far, their ability to judge other peoples’ ethical mettle. In fact, the vast majority of them are easy to hack, and their excessive confidence in their own assessment is, in truth, easily used against them by the bad actors.

This problem is pretty much impossible to solve. Most people know from experience that the worst people– the psychopaths– are superficially charming, which means that personal impressions are of low value. What about getting access to the person’s history? In employment, that’s what reference checks are for, but shady characters often have great references. Why? Because they lie, extort, and manipulate people until their histories become not only socially acceptable but outright attractive. They hack people with as much skill and malice as the worst black-hat “crackers”. The people who are harmed by intensive reference checks are honest people with difficult histories, not the degenerate and dishonest who are the real threat.

My experience is that people lack the tools to judge others for character, at least at scale. Any fair punitive structure is predictable, and the most skilled of the bad actors will adapt. Any unpredictable punitive structure will be unfair, and rely on decisions made by influential humans, who are more likely than average to be psychopaths, and will certainly have psychopathic courtiers (whom the powerful person has not yet detected). The best one can do is to judge people by their actions, and to punish bad deeds swiftly and objectively. This is not a trivial art, of course.

Laws and imprisonment serve this punitive purpose, but most of the people in our jails are impulsive people of low social class, with only moderate overlap between the imprisoned population and the psychopaths. In employment, there’s a naive hope that, while psychopaths can climb high within corporations, they will eventually be unable to escape their histories and be flushed out of respectable careers. It never happens that way. Moral degenerates don’t get blacklisted. They acquire power and do the blacklisting.

One acquired strategy for dealing with such people is “Distrust everyone”. That’s how most seasoned managers and executives, having been robbed a couple times by dishonest subordinates, tend to view the people below them– with implicit, prevailing distrust. That strategy fails especially badly. Why? First, there are degrees of trust and distrust. Becoming a managerial favorite (managers are not always psychopaths, but managerial favorites almost always are) simply requires superiority in relative trust, not any level of absolute trust. Second, it’s functionally impossible to get a complex job done (much less lead a team) with prevailing total distrust of everyone, so people who “distrust everyone” are desperate for people they can give partial trust. Psychopaths play people with that attitude quite easily. It’s not even work for them. A boss who thinks his subordinates are all morons is surprisingly easy to hack.

The conclusion of all this is that, in defending scalable institutions such as corporations against psychopaths, we’re basically helpless. We don’t have the tools to detect them based on affability or social proof, and any strategy that we devise to deal with them, they will subvert to their own ends. We can’t “beat” them when they look exactly like us and will be undetected until it’s too late. Our best shot is not to attract them, and to avoid engaging in behaviors that make our institutions and patterns most easily hackable.

Despite our complete lack of ability to assess individuals for character at scale, we develop metrics for doing so that often not only fail us, but become tools of the psychopath. A going assumption that people make is that the small is indicative of the large. If Fairbanks is chilly in the summer, it must be frigid in the winter. (This applies to most climates, but not to San Francisco.) People who make occasional misspellings in email must be stupid. People who have mediocre accomplishments (by adult standards) at young ages are destined for adult brilliance. People who regularly take 75-minute lunches are “time-stealing” thieves.

Talent is judged in the workplace based on minor accomplishments, largely because there are so few opportunities for major accomplishment, and those are only available to the well-established. The guy who reliably hits a “6″ is judged to be capable of the “9″ (see: Peter Principle) while the one who gets bored and starts dropping “5″s is flushed out. Character is judged, similarly, based on useless and minor signals. The person who regularly arrives at 9:00, never says the wrong thing, and projects the image of a “team player” (whatever the fuck that means) gets ahead. What takes the place of character– which, I contend, cannot be assessed at scale and amid the extreme information sparsity of modern society– is superficial reliability. The people who pass what a company thinks are character and “culture fit” assessments are, rather than those of pristine character, the superficially reliable.

Who wins at this game? I wouldn’t say that it’s only psychopaths who win, but the best are going to be the psychopaths. The earnestly honest will break rules (formal and informal) to get work done. They care more about doing the right thing than being perceived the right way. Psychopaths are not by-the-word rule-followers with regard to formal policies, but they always follow the informal social rules (even to the breach of formal and less-powerful informal rules). They figure them out the quickest, have few distractions (since they rarely do actual work; that’s not what the office game is about!) and, fairly early on, find themselves in the position to make those rules. 

Superficial reliability works in favor of the worst people. Why? It evolves into a competition. Once everyone is in the office from 9:00 to 6:00, the new standard becomes 8:00 to 7:00. Then it’s 7:00 to 8:00, with expected email checking to 11:00. People start to fail. The noncompliant are the first to drop away and judged by the organism (the team, management) to have been the least dedicated, so it’s not seen as a loss. The next wave of failures are the enervated compliant, who meet the increasingly difficult standards but underperform in other ways. They spend their 13 hours at the office, but start making mistakes. They turn into temporary incompetents, and are flushed out as well. They’re not seen as a loss either. “We have a tough culture here.” As those burn off, people who were formerly at the center of the bell curve (in reliability, status, and performance) are now on the fringe, which means that there’s an atypically large set of people on the bubble, generating a culture of anxiety. They become catty and cutthroat now that the middle is no longer a safe place to be. People fight, and some come out of it looking so terrible that their reputations are ruined. They leave. Psychopaths rarely enter these contests directly, but evolve into puppet masters and arms dealers, ensuring that they win regardless of each battle’s outcome. Soon, the psychopath has entrenched himself as a key player in the organization. He’s not doing most of the work, but he’s feared by the actual stars, enough that they’ll let him take credit for their work and (in management’s eye) become one.

Most reliability contests work this way. There’s some performance metric where the bottom few percent justly deserve to be fired. As a limited measure, such a “sweep” is not a bad idea. (“Let’s stop paying the people who never show up.”) Management, however, is not measured or limited. It’s faddish, impulsive, absolute, and excessive. Whatever policy is used to separate from true underperformers (about 2%) must also be used to “stack rank” the other 98 percent. It’s no longer enough to enforce an honest 8-hour day; we must require an 11-hour day. This overkill damages the work environment and culture, and psychopaths thrive in damaged, opaque, and miserable environments.

Another example is reference checking in employment. The real purpose of the reference check is to discourage the morally average from lying about their histories, and it works. The moral “middle man” at the center of the ethical bell curve would probably lie on his resume given the right incentives, but would stop short of asking 3 friends to support the lie by posing as peers at jobs the person did not hold. Most people won’t make that kind of demand of people who aren’t close to them, but few people want to be seen as unethical by close colleagues. That is the point where the average person says, “Wait a minute, this might be wrong.” The classic, three-reference check also filters out the honest but undesirable candidates who just can’t find three people to recommend their work. It’s a reliability test, in that anyone who can’t find 3 people in his last 5 years to say good things about him is probably in that bottom 2% who are undesirable hires for that reasonl alone. Yet, at senior ranks in large companies, reference checking becomes a reliability contest, with 10 to 20 references– including “back channel” references not furnished by the candidate– being required. At that point, you’re selecting in favor of psychopaths. Why? Most honest people, playing fair, can’t come up with 20 references, nor have they engaged in the intimidation and extortion necessary to pass an intensive “back-channel” reference check in a world where even a modestly positive reference means no-hire. It’s those honest people who fail those cavity searches. A psychopath with no qualms about dishonesty and extortion can furnish 50 references. Beyond the “classic 3″, reference checking actually selects for psychopathy. 

Why do psychopaths never fail out, even of reliability contests designed to cull those of low character? The answer is that they have a limited emotional spectrum, and don’t feel most varieties of emotional pain, which makes them exceptionally good at such contests. They don’t become upset with themselves when they produce shoddy work– instead, they plan a blame strategy– so they don’t mind 15-hour days. (Office politics is a game for them, and one they love to play, so long hours don’t bother them.) They are emotionally immune to criticism as well. While they care immensely about their status and image, they have no reason to fear being dressed down by people they respect– because they don’t actually respect anyone. While psychopaths seem to despise losing, given the awful things they will do to avoid a minimal loss, even defeat doesn’t faze them for long. (This is an erroneous perception of the psychopaths; when we see psychopaths doing awful things to avoid minor losses, we assume they must have a desperate hatred of losing because we would require extreme circumstances in order to do such bad things. In truth, the difference is that they have no internal resistance against bad action.) Losses do not depress or hamper them. They pop right back up. Psychopaths are unbeatable. You can’t find them out until it’s too late, and whatever you try to kill them with is just as likely to hit someone innocent. Indeed, they thrive on our efforts to defeat them. When they are finally caught and prone, our punishments are often useless. There is truly “no there there” to a psychopath, and they have nothing to lose.

For an aside, I am not saying that we are powerless to curtail, punish, or rehabilitate the larger category of “bad actors”. Laws, social norms, and traditional incentives work well for normal people. Petty theft, for example, is rare because it is punished. Plenty of non-psychopaths would– out of weakness, desperation, curiosity, or even boredom– steal if they could get away with it. Jail time deters them. Prison is an environment to which normal people adapt poorly, and therefore an undesirable place to be. Psychopaths are different in many ways, one of which is that they are extremely adaptive. They love environments that others cannot stand, including prisons and “tough” workplace cultures. Punishing a psychopath is very hard, given his imperviousness to emotional pain. You could inflict physical pain or even kill him, but there would be no point. He would suffer, but he would not change.

Why does psychopathy exist? It’s useful to answer this question in order to best understand what psychopathy is. My best guess at it is that it has emerged out of the tension between two reproductive pressures– r- and K-selection– that existed in our evolutionary environment. An r-selective strategy is one that maximizes gross reproductive yield, or “spray and pray”. K-selective strategies are focused more on quality– fewer, more successful, offspring. The r-selective “alpha” male has a harem of 20 women and 200 children, most neglected and unhealthy. The K-selective “beta” has one wife and “only” 8 or 9 offspring, and invests heavily in their health. Neither is innately superior to the other; r-selective strategies repopulate quickly after a crisis, while K-selective quality-focused strategies perform well in stability. Human civilization has been the gradual process of the K-strategist “betas” taking over, first with monogamy and expected paternal investment, which was later extended to political and economic equality (because high-quality offspring will fare better in a stable and just world than a damaged one). Almost certainly, all humans possess a mix of “alpha” and “beta” genes and carry impulses from both evolutionary patterns, with the more civilized beta strategy winning over time, but not without a fight. Indeed, what we view as morally “good” in many societies is intimately connected with beta patterns– sexual restraint, nonviolence, positive-sum gradualism– while our concept of “sin” is tied to our alpha heritage. Psychopathy seems to be an adaptation in which the beta, or K-selective, tendencies of the mind are not expressed, allowing the alpha to run unchecked. In evolutionary terms, this made the individual more fit, although often at the expense of society.

Psychopaths (for obvious evolutionary reasons) like sex, status, and resources, but that alone doesn’t identify them, since almost everyone does. What differentiates the psychopath is the extreme present-time orientation, as well as the willingness to make ethical compromises to get them. The future-oriented, positive-sum mentality is absent in the psychopath. Unhampered by conscience, psychopaths quickly acquire resources and power, these being key (at least, throughout most of our evolutionary history) to reproductive proliferation. In business, their sexual appetites are not of major interest. What’s most relevant to our problem is their attraction to power and status. That is what they want. It’s only about money for them so far as it confers social status.

If we cannot defeat psychopaths, then what should we do? This turns out not to be a new problem– not in the least. Why, for example, do American elected officials draw such mediocre salaries? Why do we need all the checks and balances that make even the presidency so much damn work? Making power less attractive is one of the first principles of rational government, as the concept was developed during the Age of Reason. The reactionary clergies and hereditary aristocracies had to go– that much was clear– but how could one prevent a worse and more brutal lord from filling the vacuum? The idea was to compensate for power’s natural attractiveness by limiting it and attaching responsibilities. In the U.S., this even came to the matter of location, with the nation’s capital being chosen deliberately in an undesirable climate. In elected politics, I would say that this has mostly worked. We’ve had some downright awful political leaders, but a surprisingly low number (by corporate comparison) of psychopaths in top political positions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that elected office doesn’t attract them, but other positions of power attract them much more. With the first-rate psychopaths making millions in the corporate world, the psychopaths who are attracted to elected political positions are the C-students in psychopath school.

Taking a macroscopic perspective, psychopathy is a very hard problem to solve. A closed system such as a nation-state has some probably invariant population of psychopaths that, inevitably, will be attracted to some variety of social status and dominance over other people. Flush them out of politics, and they end up in business. Yet if business were made unattractive due to an overpowered state (e.g. left-wing authoritarianism) they would end up back in government. They have to go somewhere, and it is impossible to identify them until they’ve done their damage (and, often, not even then). Yet the microeconomic problem for an individual firm is much easier– don’t attract psychopaths.

In technology, one strategy is Valve-style open allocation, under which employees are permitted to work for the firm directly rather than requiring managerial approval. Want to change projects? Move your desk and start. The typical extortion that middle managers use to build their careers– work for me or you don’t work here at all– doesn’t exist, because no one has that authority. Managerial authority attracts psychopaths like little else– more than money or prestige– and if one can do without it, one should consider doing so.

Much of the appeal of startups in technology is the perception (sometimes, an inaccurate one) that small technology companies haven’t yet been corroded and politicized by managerial extortions. In the ideal case, a startup operates under a constrained open allocation. It’s not yet “work on whatever you want”, because the startup requires intense focus on solving a specific problem, but employees are trusted to manage their own contribution. When do those companies go to closed allocation? Often, “hot” companies lose their cultural integrity in the process of hiring executives. The flashy career office-politician with impressive titles and “a track record” demands authority from the go, and it’s given to him. Five direct reports is not enough; he demands ten. He gets 15. Over time, employees lose status and autonomy as it’s chipped away to feed these people.

Most of the cultural losses that companies endure as they grow are suffered in the quest to hire executives from the outside, but what kind of person are you going to attract if you’re immediately willing to sell off your employees’ autonomy to “close a deal”? The people you’re most likely to get are those who enjoy power over people. Not all of these are psychopaths (some are mere narcissists or control freaks) but many are. Your culture will disappear rapidly.

If you’re running a typical VC-funded, build-to-flip operation, then hiring power-hungry external executives might be the way to go. A great way to buy an important decision-maker (an investor, an executive at an acquirer) is to give his underperforming friend an executive position at your company. You might take on a psychopath or few, but you’re not going to be in the company for very long, so it’s not your concern. On the other hand, if you want to build a stable company whose culture and values will still be worth a damn in 20 years, then you can’t do that. To the extent that your organization needs positions of power to function, you need to make them undesirable to the psychopath. This is one of the major reasons why you need intrinsic limits (checks and balances) on power.

Unfortunately for corporate executives, making a company less psychopath-friendly means equalizing the distribution of power and reward within companies. It means moving away from the CEO-as-king model and the eight-figure pay packages. Over the past forty years, we’ve been paying more and getting less when it comes to corporate management. Flushing out the psychopaths requires that we pay less, both financially and in terms of authority over other people, for managerial positions. The whole concept of what it means to be an “executive” will require reinvention as radical as the replacement of hereditary monarchs by elected legislators.

The stupid, superficial reliability contests that corporations use to assess character and protect themselves against psychopaths don’t work. In fact, they do the opposite, becoming the psychopath’s favorite tools. Companies that want to avoid being invaded and controlled by such people will have to reinvent themselves in a form radically unlike the traditional, hierarchical corporation.