Saturday, May 31, 2014

The one eyed man

"In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king."

I've always wondered about this saying.  It strikes me that this isn't the best analogy to use when talking about the unique value that each of us bring to the world.  If you think about it, a sighted person who is suddenly thrust into a community of only blind people would not be hailed as a conqueror.  No, they would be ostracized as a freak, perhaps feared, most certainly the subject of ridicule.  This is the human condition.  We are social animals and instinctively seek the safety of conformity.

Strangely, we live in a society that puts individualism at a premium.  And then we seek out and attempt to destroy anyone who's actually different.  What an interesting contradiction.

In the workplace, the high performers are often praised and set as examples above the rest of the team.  However, the team will usually seek to bring this person down and will resist a single member outshining the rest.  It's just a natural competitive instinct to resist being placed into a lesser category.  In reality, the most successful teams attempt to share the credit and bring the entire team up at the same time.  Naturally, this is not actually true.  In any group, there will be variations in performance and thus you will always have a #1 performer.  This inherent dishonesty in team dynamics has always puzzled me.  It's necessary, but seems like a dishonest way to go about things.

Thinking back to my childhood, I was raised in the '70s in San Francisco.  One thing that was consistent drummed into me was that we were all equals as humans.  All people are the same.  If you thought of someone as less than you, that was discrimination.  Today, I understand that this was simply a reaction to the horrible oppression of blacks and other minorities; at the time I was just a kid so I took the advice literally.  I really believed that we were all the same.  That men and women were the same.  That there was no difference between an American and a Japanese person.

Then I grew up.

I found out, much to my horror, that this is simply not true.  Men and women are NOT the same.  We have different bodies, we generate different hormones, we look at the world differently.  When I started traveling extensively in my '20's I realized that Americans were very different than Europeans and very different than Asians.  This is a very good thing.  Through diversity, we find strength.  However, diversity does not imply that we are all equally good at everything.  We are not the same, we are not equal, interchangeable identical parts in a giant machine.

Thus, the idea that we're all equal just doesn't work.  We need to have a level playing field, we need to have the same opportunities.  But we're not the same.  It is OK to discriminate between people, but we need to do it on merit, not the color of their skin.

This gets us to the point of the argument:  In business, democracy does not work.  We don't all get the same vote because we're not all equal.

Why the dichotomy?  Why use democracy for political life but not for business?  Because in business, there is a winner.  That changes everything.

When you have winners and losers, there is a required difference and ranking.  You must have a #1 by definition or there is no winner.

Yes, I'm aware that there are businesses out there where "making money" is not the claimed objective.  That's fine.  I'm not saying it's about making money all the time.  What I'm saying is that all businesses have a purpose.  They either achieve this purpose or they do not.  This is winning or losing.

The phrase that I've always liked is "Meritocracy."  The implication in a meritocracy is that people rise or fall based on merit.  There is no assumption of equality, but there is an assumption of fairness.  Not everyone wants to live in a meritocracy.  I assume that is because they don't like the competitive nature and don't want to be constantly stack ranked against others.  However, I would argue that they're simply fooling themselves.  Every company I've ever worked for has had some sort of ranking system.  It may be hidden and very covert, but it's there.  How else do you assign promotions and bonuses?  I don't want to work somewhere that awards promotions based on "time in grade."  Just being able to breathe regularly does not seem like the correct criteria for becoming a supervisor.

I think another key difference here is the ability to vote with my feet.  In government, you don't really have the option of leaving because you don't like the current administration.  In my line of work, I do have that option.  It would be different if my career choices were limited due to circumstance, but I'm lucky to work in an industry that's still growing.  Thus, when I have no choice in leaving I prefer equality because that gives me at least some guarantee in life.

Thus, "fairness" is not the same thing as "equality."  So, what do you want in your workplace?  Fairness?  Or Equality?  I know how I would vote.

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