2018.12.16 – Many lengthy books and articles have been written on how to be fulfilled at work, good management, and keeping your staff engaged and excited. However, I’ve found one simple equation that is the secret to all of these. If you’re not satisfied with your job, it’s probably because you don’t feel effective or that your work has the desired outcome – your volition, or because there’s too much resistance, bureaucracy, barriers, and day-to-day minutiae for you to enjoy the work – the friction. Satisfaction is a measure of your volition over the job’s friction. More volition increases satisfaction, as does less friction. Let’s say that your control over your job is around 5 on some magical undefined scale – you can do the things you need to some of the time. However, the amount of paperwork you have to fill out to do the job is around a 10. 5/10 = ½, so you’re probably not going to be very satisfied. On the other hand, if you have lots of control and can make all the decisions you need – let’s call this 10 – and you have no daily design-by-committee meetings to wrangle – let’s give this one a 2, you’re at 10/2 = 5, which is looking pretty good. You don’t really need the scale or the points here, it’s just to show how the two relate to each other. The ratio of volition to friction will determine your level of job satisfaction. Research suggests that people feel most fulfilled when they are being challenged just beyond their current capacity. Too little challenge or too much challenge become either boring or overwhelming. Although being able to direct your work is the most obvious component of volition, it can include many supplementary factors. The alignment of your skills and background to your work can impact your volition. Feeling that your work has an impact on the world can also be a major element. Friction is comprised of several components as well. If your organization has unnecessary processes and procedures, those barriers to productivity will cause friction. If you work more than 40 hours per week or your commute is long that will likely cause friction by cutting into personal time. If your organization requires extensive reviews and buy-in from multiple stakeholders to accomplish tasks that may cause friction. Anything that causes you to become quickly exhausted at your job is likely adding to the friction. To increase your job satisfaction, you’ll need to increase your volition in the job or decrease your friction. To increase your volition you can take many steps in your current job. This includes outsourcing or delegating unwanted tasks, taking on different projects that you enjoy more than your current projects, learn key information or skills, increase the level of challenge by taking on harder projects, decrease the level of challenge by collaborating with experts. To dramatically increase your volition you may need to find a new job. To decrease the level of friction there are many things to do as well. You can outsource and delegate tasks to decrease your weekly hours. You can work from home several days to decrease your weekly commute time. You can decrease the number of weekly meetings with your teams. Any of these can make the job feel easier even if the workload hasn’t decreased. This isn’t to say that there aren’t terrible jobs in the world that no one would ever enjoy. You may be in a job where neither of these variables can be changed enough to make a major impact on your happiness. It’s a good idea to regularly assess where you’re at on this scale just to make sure your satisfaction isn’t slipping away. If you’re familiar with Agile methodologies, this should sound somewhat familiar. “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is a core tenet of the Agile approach. Putting the individual in control and reducing the cruft of processes is just good practice. As a manager, I often use this equation to help increase my staff’s satisfaction as well. I may not be able to always give a staff member more control over their work, but I can drop half of our check-in meetings to free up their time, or find ways to reduce the amount of paperwork they have to file to do their job. However, in many cases I can do both at once – by allowing staff to act independently in their projects with less oversight. This brings up another equation that I’m fond of: In general, if you hire good, talented people, all you need to do is trust _them to do their job and give them the _autonomy they need to do it, and they’ll deliver good work. (Buckminster Fuller talks about this in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in describing the “Great Pirates.”) Giving your people the space they need to execute and support they need to see their work through will build trust and autonomy. Best of all, trust can increase volition, and autonomy can decrease friction, resulting in delivery and satisfaction. Each one of these components can be broken down into various topics for in depth study. The high level equation helps identify what the missing component is to getting the desired results. I hope you’ll keep this equation in mind when you’re approaching your own work, and see if you can find ways of creating a better balance.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of technology companies and agencies have adopted a flat hierarchical structure. This organizational system promises to improve the efficiency of organizations by removing management structures, leaving as few management layers as possible. I believe that it is also almost entirely imaginary.
Since the popular game company Valve published its employee handbook online in 2012, companies have looked to the text for ways to improve their own processes. Growing companies stopped hiring middle level managers, project managers, and other critical roles in favor of letting engineers manage themselves. This was a very attractive move for smaller organizations, since it reduced the number of positions they needed to hire for, reducing their operating costs dramatically. For engineers it can be initially compelling to be able to set their own priorities amongst themselves — and potentially get an inflated title such as “Lead” or “VP” (but often with no additional compensation).
Management is best done by managers
However, in practice, it’s rarely so simple. By serving dual roles on a team, performance often suffers as staff try to context shift. Good engineers do not automatically make good managers — working with computers and working with people require very different skillsets. A company wouldn’t expect a business manager to write code, so why should the reverse be encouraged?
“Flattening the org chart just means creating a hierarchy of emotional labor”
In a flat organization, it is no one’s dedicated job to handle many of the complex human interactions that a business must handle. At one organization, I found myself staying up late nights, writing human resource policies, vacation plans, and codes of conduct. From project management to conflict resolution, functions that are filled by dedicated staff in other businesses frequently become after-hours extra labor by engineering staff. So-called soft skills and human-oriented problems are treated as secondary to achieving product goals.
It may be necessary for staff to serve multiple roles initially for very small organizations to be able to function, but beyond the first dozen staff this is not a practical or ethical way to accomplish tasks. If you’re large enough to be thinking about insurance plans and snack delivery, you’re large enough to hire management. A good project manager or human resources officer is a much better investment than that a lavish office space will be.
Even in large companies, it’s very common for women to be expected to perform administrative duties outside of their roles, such as taking notes or scheduling meetings. In flat organizations, it’s very common for many of the “extra” tasks to be assigned to women and minorities first. The inherent cultural biases in technology only increases the odds that these groups will be expected to do more than their share. It’s also common for more junior staff to be assigned the less exciting work, for instance being assigned to fix bugs instead of writing new code.
Hierarchies form anyway, and unfairly
“A flat org just replaces vertical hierarchy with concentric levels of inner circleness… If you remove formality you can avoid accountability and responsibility with policy of openness that is a convention of silence in practice.”
In many organizations that aim to be flat, a hierarchy emerges based on social cliques and personal relationships, instead of an officially established order. The ideas of staff who spend time socially with owners and executives tend to be adopted more readily. In many organizations I’ve worked for, I’ve frequently seen talented staff passed over for promotion in favor of friends of company owners and managers.
People, by nature, surround themselves with like-minded — and like-cultured — individuals, creating echo chambers and consolidating power in in-groups. This almost always puts women and minorities at a disadvantage. In a structured organization formal policies on hiring and process can help to prevent the biases and inequalities that come from such in-groups, but a flat organization has no such defense from becoming a good ol’ boys club.
It has been reported that this was the situation at Valve as well. Since there is no official hierarchy, there is often no way to call out the favoritism that comes with these factions, and rarely any formal process for resolution. Even when group-based decision making is a part of the process, individuals outside of the power centers tend to speak up less, adding to the asymmetry.