What is Life in an Immoral Maze?

Previously in sequence: Moloch Hasn’t WonPerfect CompetitionImperfect CompetitionDoes Big Business Hate Your Family?

This post attempts to give a gears-level explanation of maze life as experienced by a middle manager in systems with many levels of management, as depicted in Moral Mazes. 

The ‘maze level’ of corporations differs wildly. These dynamics do not reliably fully take over until you have many levels of management – in Moral Mazes there are at least 25 grades of management and certainly 5+ levels of hierarchy. Questions of what (in addition to extra levels of management) causes high maze levels will be dealt with in future sections.

Again, if you have not yet done so, you are highly encouraged to read or review Quotes from Moral Mazes. I will not have the space here to even gloss over many important aspects.

An Immoral Maze can be modeled as a super-perfectly competitive job market for management material. All the principles of super-perfect competition are in play. The normal barriers to such competition have been stripped away. Too many ‘qualified’ managers compete for too few positions.

If an aspirant who does not devote everything they have, and visibly sacrifice all slack, towards success, they automatically fail. Those who do make such sacrifices mostly fail anyway, but some of them “succeed”. We’ll see later what success has in store for them.

The Lifestyle of a Middle Manager

At the managerial and professional levels, the road between work and life is usually open because it is difficult to refuse to use one’s influence, patronage, or power on behalf of another regular member of one’s social coterie. It therefore becomes important to choose one’s social colleagues with some care and, of course, know how to drop them should they fall out of organizational favor. (Moral Mazes, Location 884, Quote #117)

We have this idea that there is work and there is not-work, and once one leaves work one is engaged in not-work distinct from work. We also have this idea that there are things that are off limits even at work, like sexual harassment.

For a person without anyone reporting to them, who is ‘on the line’ in the book’s parlance, this can be sustained.

For those in middle management who want to succeed, that’s not how things work. Everything you are is on the table. You’d better be all-in. 

You will increasingly choose your friends to help you win. You will increasingly choose your hobbies, and what you eat, and your politics, and your house, and your church, and your spouse and how many kids you have, to help you win. And of course, you will choose your (lack of) morality.

In the end, you will sacrifice everything, and I mean everything, that you value, in any sense, to win.

If the job requires you to move, anywhere in the world, you’ll do it, dragging your nuclear family along and forcing all of you to leave behind everything and everyone you know. Otherwise, you’re just not serious about success. 

Slack will definitely not be a thing.

Your time is especially vulnerable.

Higher-level managers in all the corporations I studied commonly spend twelve to fourteen hours a day at the office. (Location 1156, Quote #120, Moral Mazes)

This is the result of total competition between producers – the managers are effectively rival producers trying to sell themselves as the product. 

The market for managers is seen, by those who make the decisions, as highly efficient.

If managers were seen as wildly different in terms of talent, intelligence, or some other ability that helped get things done, that would help a lot. You could afford to be a little quirky, to hold on to the things you value most, without losing the game entirely. Your success will be influenced by your personality and dedication, but nothing like solely determined by them.

Alas, the perception in these mazes is exactly the opposite.

See, once you are at a certain level of experience, the difference between a vice-president, an executive vice-president, and a general manager is negligible. It has relatively little to do with ability as such. People are all good at that level. They wouldn’t be there without that ability. So it has little to do with ability or with business experience and so on. All have similar levels of ability, drive, competence, and so on. What happens is that people perceive in others what they like—operating styles, lifestyles, personalities, ability to get along. Now these are all very subjective judgments. And what happens is that if a person in authority sees someone else’s guy as less competent than his own guy, well, he’ll always perceive him that way. And he’ll always pick—as a result—his own guy when the chance to do so comes up. (Location 1013, Quote #87, Moral Mazes)

It is known that most people ‘don’t have what it takes’ to be a manager. This is clearly true on many levels. Only one of them is a willingness to fully get with the program.

Once you get several levels up, the default assumption is that everyone is smart enough, and competent enough. That the object-level is a fully level playing field. The idea that someone can just be better at doing the actual job doesn’t parse for them.

All remaining differences are about negative selection, about how hard you want it and are willing to sacrifice everything, or about how well you play political games. Nor do they much care whether you succeed at your job, anyway.

Some additional supporting quotes on that follow. A large portion of the quotes reinforce this perspective. 

If you can’t work smart, work hard:

When asked who gets ahead, an executive vice-president at Weft Corporation says: The guys who want it [get ahead]. The guys who work. You can spot it in the first six months. They work hard, they come to work earlier, they leave later. They have suggestions at meetings. They come into a business and the business picks right up. They don’t go on coffee breaks down here [in the basement]. You see the parade of people going back and forth down here? There’s no reason for that. I never did that. If you need coffee, you can have it at your desk. Some people put in time and some people work. (Location 992, Quote 29, Moral Mazes)

But everyone at this level works hard, which was more about showing you work hard than the results of the work, because concrete outcomes don’t much matter:

As one manager says: “Personality spells success or failure, not what you do on the field.” (Location 1383, Quote 33, Moral Mazes)

It’s not like there were ever objective criteria:

Managers rarely speak of objective criteria for achieving success because once certain crucial points in one’s career are passed, success and failure seem to have little to do with one’s accomplishments. (Location 917, Quote 42, Moral Mazes)

Which makes sense, because if everyone is the same, then concrete outcomes are just luck:

Assuming a basic level of corporate resources and managerial know-how, real economic outcome is seen to depend on factors largely beyond organizational or personal control. (Location 1592, Quote 46, Moral Mazes)

I am supremely confident that this perspective is completely bonkers. There is huge differential between better and worse no matter how high up you go or how extreme your filters have already been. But what matters here is what the managers believe. Not what is true. Talent or brilliance won’t save you if no one believes it can exist. If noticed it will only backfire:

Striking, distinctive characteristics of any sort, in fact, are dangerous in the corporate world. One of the most damaging things, for instance, that can be said about a manager is that he is brilliant. This almost invariably signals a judgment that the person has publicly asserted his intelligence and is perceived as a threat to others. What good is a wizard who makes his colleagues and his customers uncomfortable? (Location 1173, Quote 88, Moral Mazes)

How do things get so bad? 

That’s the question we’ll look at an aspect of next post. From here I anticipate 3-5 day gaps between posts.

Questions that will be considered later, worth thinking about now, include: How does this persist? If things are so bad, why aren’t things way worse? Why haven’t these corporations fallen apart or been competed out of business? Given they haven’t, why hasn’t the entire economy collapsed? Why do regular people, aspirant managers and otherwise, still think of these manager positions as the ‘good jobs’ as opposed to picking up pitchforks and torches?

Next in sequence: Stripping Away the Protections

This entry was posted in Immoral Mazes Sequence, Moral Mazes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What is Life in an Immoral Maze?

  1. sabre says:

    My own perspective from the inside (management consulting, director/VP level):

    Everyone in the game knows that there are HUGE skill and competence differentials between different managers. The problem is that all managers are extremely busy, so my boss only sees a tiny fraction of the work I do. Not nearly enough to make a sound judgment on my competence from observation, and audits to determine competence are impractical. The most visible thing to the higher-level decision makers are outcomes of your projects/responsibilities. But once you are managing large groups of people and have multiple competing projects, it is also difficult to untangle outcomes from performance. Was this project successful because the executives did not plan correctly, and therefore the manager had excess people/resources which made success easy? Or was it a difficult project but the manager succeeded due to their skill? Did the project fail because of bad decisions by the manager, or because the needed skills are rare in the market and the organization was unwilling to pay the high wages needed to bring crucial expertise onto the manager’s team? Or because the manager prioritized another project that was even more important, thereby accepting a risk of failure where it was tolerable?

    No objective answers to these questions can be found. Instead, judgments of competence are made based on several factors:
    -How well do people like you. This is NOT just personality/charisma. Helping people when they ask is a big part of it, and this is where most of the politics come in- getting people to feel like you helped them out, but also not sacrificing so many of your resources to put your own responsibilities in jeopardy.
    -How organized/decisive/assertive you are, especially in meetings. This is somewhat useful, as the person who always has an answer handy and can quickly react to new information demonstrates good understanding of their role and business. But this can also go awry.
    -How critical is your role to the firm. The person who carries the flagship project and has all of the knowledge about it gets huge status gains, even if there are major problems with the project, because everyone understands that no one else could take their place. The person dealing with minor upkeep issues is passed over, even if those are done flawlessly.

    Having said all that, I still feel strongly that the best people (competence wise) tend to get ahead. It is surprising that these factors still produce mostly accurate perceptions, but they do. There are some organizations where managers are expected to sacrifice all family life as you suggest, but others where managers leave at 5 and only work outside hours in a true emergency. This has more to do with the culture driven by executive leadership than the upward competition.

    Interested in your thoughts and I am loving this series of posts!

    • TheZvi says:

      Interesting. Great data here, I encourage others to give similar perspective.

      This confirms some of the model/book, but directly contradicts other parts. The managers in the book slash the corporations in the book, in particular, explicitly disbelieve in skill differences beyond a threshold level that they assume everyone at their level has, despite the obvious fact of huge skill differences persisting no matter how high one gets.

      The leave at 5 and leave your work at work thing is certainly a thing in some places. My current model is that such places are mostly not mazes, if this applies to managers. Or at least, they’re not mazes in key ways that make them much less toxic. Unless, of course, the leave-at-5 thing is a reversed stupidity where it becomes terrible to be seen working after 5. We can all see where that goes, but likely still way better than the other extreme even if it is maximally toxic.

      That leads to the question of whether the best people get ahead, and to what extent these nicer systems produce accurate measurements despite inability to measure skill directly. The words “tend to” are potentially doing a lot of work. I do agree that being actually good is a competitive advantage because your stuff tends to succeed more and you are able to sound better in meetings and spare more resources to form alliances, although I assume there’s a huge random factor still there.

      I can imagine a model in which the factors you describe are actually pretty good proxies for skill and effectiveness, I can also imagine them being very poor at that.

      Also, question I’d ask is: What size were the good companies that had healthy cultures? How many employees and how many levels of management? Versus the unhealthy ones. My model says that you can be anything with less levels of management but that it becomes exceedingly difficult to pull that off as you get more levels/size. Getting real life examples of exceptions would be nice.

    • Quixote says:

      For what its worth, my experience of having worked at a large corporation for many years (finance, director/VP level) is more in line with the above comment than with the picture from the quotes section from the book moral mazes.

      I’m not sure how much of that is attributable to the passage of time; the culture described in moral mazes sounds deeply dysfunctional and companies like that may have just been out competed over time by better organized cultural superior institutions. Having all your people be sleep deprived and dead inside isn’t actually good for productivity.

      Or maybe the difference is industry, the book seemed like it was based on interviews at a a widget manufacturer and that might be very different from finance or consulting.

      Regardless, I think this series of posts is super interesting and am enjoying them.

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  3. Bankster who is annonymous for obvious reasons says:

    Some thoughts about how this works in a large bank – this applies in particular to technical support functions (IT, quants, Risk, the interesting technical jobs in Finance). I have been an individual contributor and a first-line manager at multiple banks – the differences between them are not large (with the possible exception of Goldman Sachs).
    – Large banks are less maze-like than equivalently-sized non-financial companies.
    – Investment bank front office roles (S&T) are profoundly non maze-like because you are still personally accountable for revenue generation at the point in your career where you become a meaningful political player. I believe the same is true in corporate finance and asset management. Since these are the best paid and most prestigious roles in a bank, this is probably the explanation for the above.
    – Within technical functions, managers look less like maze creatures as the problems their subordinates are working on get harder. Managers look more like maze creatures as they get more senior.
    – Most second line managers (typically 20-30 direct and indirect reports) are not “all-in” in the way you discuss. Most, but not all, third line managers (100+ indirect reports) are “all-in”.
    – In a bank, nobody moves between management roles fast enough to outrun their mistakes.
    – Senior managers mentoring new managers say that having multiple people under you quit in a short space of time is a blot on your record. Based on which managers get promoted and which ones get fired, this is not actually true.
    – People move between banks often enough that political alliances across bank boundaries matter. I get the impression that this is not true at second line management level and above in large non-financial companies. It also isn’t true at Goldmans – from the point of view of the rest of the industry people appear to leave Goldmans either in disgrace or as retired millionaires.
    – The idea that managerial skill is pass/fail and everyone above a certain level passes comfortably is not true within the levels I have visibility into. Statements of the form “we have put manager x in charge of team y because team y are working on key regulatory deliverables and x is the best guy at his level in the department” are common and taken seriously. Notoriously, the non-execs at Bank One who hired Jamie Dimon after Sandy Weill fired him did not consider his talents fungible – and they were right.
    – “Change” – i.e. projects requiring non-trivial project management – is a constant in the areas I work in. The success rate of large projects is sufficiently close to 50% that both successes and failures are career-influencing for the responsible managers.

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