America Has Demonized Labor

The "Great Resignation" is being framed as workers quitting rather than companies failing to attract them with money and good work conditions.
Ed Zitron 9 min read
America Has Demonized Labor

Yesterday I was treated to easily the worst management thread I’ve seen in months:

The entire term “managing up” is one of the vilest concepts in management theory, the idea that you should be managing your manager, doing both your job and their job, and then give them credit for doing so. The idea that your boss is “tired of managing you” is something that suggests that you, as the person being managed, are responsible both for managing yourself and managing the manager, making sure that they’re happy for some obtuse reason.

Take this anecdote:

If your boss tells you to ask them questions any time and then requests you “figure things out on your own,” they are either terrible at managing, or you are not currently qualified for the job. The latter can be true if you’re new, and still finding your feet - at which point the comment of “why can’t you figure things out on your own?” is unfair and also very much the manager’s job, as the job of a manager is to help you manage your work and give you the things to do with it—reading this conversation - one I’ve had before! - all I can think of is the bizarre romanticization of leadership in business, where the boss and the manager have become these vaunted positions where we, the nasty little worms on the bottom, must dance to their tune.

I would also wonder if Kao has ever…met a manager?

I would argue that senior employees are often the worst at communicating and managing up - they have been there a while. If the concept of managing up is even being considered, they’re likely there by trampling others. If there are endless one-off questions in a situation, there is likely a failure to communicate, and that failure is and always will be on the company, not the employee.

While I won’t go line-by-line through the thread, it’s mainly around the idea of reframing the worker-manager relationship as an abusive relationship where you, as the worker, must walk on eggshells to make sure we don’t upset them…

…and eventually giving them credit for our work:

Do you know what letting your boss take credit actually does? It tells the boss that they don’t have to do work other than ordering you about. It allows them to be lazy and to claim ownership over you and your work product. Kao’s disclaimer that “these ideas DO NOT apply to toxic bosses” is hilarious because it’s at the end of a thread about how you can gaslight yourself into picking up the slack of a manager who doesn’t want to manage.

It is also the very definition of an abusive relationship (and gaslighting!), where you take harmful things being done to you and say that you deserve them. Managing up is sycophancy and abuse masquerading as diplomacy - while yes, you may annoy your manager by constantly bringing them problems, it’s also their job to work with you to fix them, and you do not always have the answers. Managing up takes the very basics of work - communicating with others, being transparent with what you’re saying, not being a total downer, and saying everything’s ruined when things go wrong - and turns them into a relationship where you’re constantly changing yourself to make them happy. There is a vast gulf between the idea of a respectful relationship and one of simpering boot-lickery, and this thread is in the latter category.

And what this thread lacks is any clear value for the worker.

As I’ve written before, the role of a manager is to make sure things are done on a grander strategic level, giving direction to other people and managing their workload. Their job is to get the best out of people and give them the resources they need. What their job isn’t is to be kissed up to, or given credit, or “to be managed” - in fact, their job is to manage other people. If someone must be “managed up” in any way further than being a respectful and transparent co-worker, they are failing as a manager, and framing it any other way is harmful.

A manager’s job is to work with you to set the cadence and flow of your work, set reasonable deadlines, and set the regular check-ins. It is their job to add structure, empower you, and get the most out of you as a valuable worker. It is not your job to manage them or make them a “better manager” - that is their job. I keep writing some form of this again and again and deleting it because it is so god damn obvious, yet so many people seem to have forgotten what management means.

If you have to manage up, you have a terrible manager. It is that simple. Managing up assumes a fair and balanced relationship with management that doesn’t exist and constantly goes back to the idea of consciously manipulating your boss into being happy with you, which is an insane way to look at any relationship, let alone a professional one.

Management Theory Is Anti-Worker

A lot of management theory is based on an idealized view of the world. Managing up - and this entire thread - is based on a total lack of awareness of how most work is  done and actively seeks to blame the worker for problems created by managers. This is because most management theory attempts to take a macro view of work, which actively minimizes the worker to an object that creates value for the manager or executive. The irony is that too often these theories - that exist to evaluate and strengthen businesses that turn labor into money - often dismiss the role of labor in the creation of capital.

But the insidiousness of management theory is such that it has had a damaging effect on a culture that positions management and executives as workers, but better. As a result, societally, we see the manager and executive as superior beings that we must defer to, as those who “can really get things done” as if the worker is unwilling rather than unable to do something (with their abilities entirely dictated by the manager/executive).

Management theory itself exists partly to divine order from chaos but also to mystify and lionize management itself. By making it seem like this vast, interconnected universe, one so utterly different to the worker’s world, we obfuscate what the worker can expect from managers and make kissing up to and ‘managing’ your boss a miniature form of zealotry.

And by mystifying both the job and the expectations from a manager, we complicate the simple expectations of what a manager should do. By making it complicated, we allow them to get away with failing their workers, and place the responsibility on the worker to give that manager a reason to exist.

We have been conditioned to not blame management or ownership for their failings, giving them blameless ownership of workers’ labor. When something goes wrong at work, as is human, the blame game immediately starts, but rarely is the manager the one that’s kicked out the door. When cuts are made, managers and executives are protected (despite making the most and thus being the larger drain on the business) while workers are laid off en masse, all while the CEO mumbles out a vague statement about “tough choices” that don’t affect them in the slightest.

To make this a little simpler, I do not believe a majority of executives or managers have any concept of the day-to-day operations of their business and we should address them as such. They do not care about or value labor in anything other than an abstract vehicle for capital, and they will do literally anything they can other than give people more money and better working conditions because they do not believe they deserve them.

Anyway, Fortune and Deloitte did a joint study of over a hundred CEOs about what they were doing to retain and obtain workers, and the answers were as predictable as they were disconnected:

The first point to get past is that they believe that giving people “flexibility” is a perk, which means that it will go away the moment that the company perceives the “labor shortage” is gone.

The second is that this shows exactly where the priorities of executives are - emphasis on corporate purpose (what?) and “well-being and mental health.” Wanna know what’ll help your workers with their well-being and mental health? More money so they have less problems and a workplace that doesn’t make them depressed. Mental health is not a thing that the workplace should have a consideration over other than their contribution toward it, and obfuscating their role as something that involves them “doing more mental health stuff” is getting away, once again, from giving people more money and better working conditions.

Forgive me for just scooting over the diversity, equity and inclusion stuff - the fact it’s equal to “corporate purpose” means that it is something they are likely engaging as a marketing activity rather than an actual attempt to have a level playing field.

Anyway, the point to look at is that stuff like “more time off” and “training and development” and “increased pay” and other things that actually make work better are subordinate to external virtue-signalling to make people believe that companies care.

We have, and I have no idea why, given executives and managers the immediate benefit of the doubt, and naturally assumed that corporations always want to do well by their people. We assume that bad managers are just “mistrained” or “need to be managed up” and that having bad bosses is simply part of working.

What we need to do is start dealing with managers and management with the same level of cynicism that we seem so ready to level at workers. We are so quick to publish textbooks and awful Twitter threads about how we can effectively “deal with our bosses” without holding them accountable to the same level of scrutiny. We aspire (and teach others to aspire) to become part of “management” with the big secret being that we do so in the hopes that we can escape the grizzly role of the laborer that we have grown to accept.

What we have done is demonize work. We have considered being an executive or manager a time when you have left the mortal plane of labor, where you are now above it all and can see things that they could not possibly understand. We lionize founders and executives that have trodden on others, and rarely hold them accountable, let alone ask them when the last time was that they actually did the job that enriches them. And we have created a culture that has us telling young people to be grateful that they get less than a livable wage, and that only through hard work can they escape labor.

The Great Resignation is not something that is happening because people “want a change in life.” It is not a philosophical conundrum created from workers deciding that they suddenly “want a better work-life balance” which requires them leaving the workforce. It is a mass-realization that they are not paid or treated well enough to stay at a job, and that they do not owe anyone their labor. Making it complex - turning it into things like workers “not being embedded” at their jobs” - gives executives the ability to hand-wave and suggest that it’s a problem created by the workers.

What the media (and society) is continually failing at is framing this as a failure of corporations failing to take care of and attract workers. We have taken the idea that nothing is earned without struggle to mean that there is nobility in being treated poorly, and extended that to apply to almost all labor, especially manual labor, who are invisible sacrifices to the gods of modern capitalism.

One crucial lack of curiosity from many media outlets is whether these companies can afford to pay more and have better working conditions. There is always more space to publish the vague musings of economists and professors or the puff-laden nonsense of executives, but never a thorough investigation of what it’s like to work for the companies that can’t hire.

The Journal ran a piece earlier this year with a stunning theory - that workers work harder when they’re paid more - only to memory-hole it for every single supply chain or Great Resignation article, for reasons that I am sure are honest and not remotely clouded by their audience.

So many problems in work - from factory labor to office work - come down to people not being compensated or treated properly. These problems are compounded because those who are able to make these changes are oftentimes the ones least affected by their consequences, and thus lack the insight and empathy to deal with them.

Corporations want these to be framed as complex, multi-layered problems because otherwise people may ask a very simple question: how much are you paying people, and why do you think that’s a fair amount to give them?

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