When I tried to inner sim the "bullshit jobs as compensation" model, I expected to see a very different world than I do see. In particular, I'd expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.

The problem being that the kind of person who wants a bullshit job is not typically the kind of person you'd necessarily want a favor from. One use for bullshit jobs could be to help the friends (or more likely the family) of someone who does "play the game." This I think happens more often, but I still think the world would be very different if this was the main use case for bullshit jobs- In particular, I'd expect most bullshit jobs to be isolated from the rest of the company, such that they don't have ripple effects. This doesn't seem to be the case as many bullshit jobs exist in management.

When I inquired about the world I actually do see, I got several other potential reasons for bullshit jobs that may or may not fit the data better:

  • Bullshit jobs as pre-installed scapegoats: Lots of middle management might fit into this role. This could be viewed as a favor (I'll give you a cushy job now in exchange for you throwing yourself on the sword when the time comes.) However, I think the predictive model is to view it in terms of the Gervais principle: The clueless middle managers don't realize they're being manipulated by the sociopaths.
  • Bullshit jobs as a way to make people feel important: Lets say you have a preinstalled scapegoat. You need to keep them happy enough that they'll stay in their position and not ask too many questions. One way to do that for a certain type of person is to give them underlings. But if you gave them underlings with real jobs they could screw things up for the organization, so you give them underlings with bullshit jobs.
    • Another instance of this that I imagined might happen: Someone is really great at what they do (say they're a 10x employee), but to feel important wants to be a manager. You know if you don't promote them you'll lose them, but you know they'll be an awful manager. You promote them, give them a couple underlings with a bullshit job, and now they're still only a 4x employee because they spend a lot of their time managing, but you still manage to squeeze a little bit of productivity out of the deal. This one I'm less sure about but its' interesting because it turns the peter principle on its' head.

Edit: As I continued to inner sim the above reasons, a few feedback loops began to become clear:

  • To be a proper scapegoat, your scapegoat has to seem powerful within the organization. But to prevent them from screwing things up, you can't give them real power. This means, the most effective scapegoats have lots of bullshit jobs underneath them.
  • There are various levels of screwup. I might not realize I'm a scapegoat for the very big events above me, but still not want to get blamed for the very real things that happen on the level of organization I actually do run. One move I have is to hire another scapegoat who plays the game one level below me, install them as a manager, and then use them as a scapegoat. Then there's another level at which they get blamed for things that happen on their level, and this can recurse for several levels of middle management.
  • Some of the middle managment installed as scapegoats might accidentally get hands on real power in the organization. Because they're bad managers, they're bad at figuring out what jobs are needed. This then becomes the "inefficiency" model you mentioned.

Jimrandomh's Shortform

by jimrandomh 1 min read4th Jul 201964 comments

This post is a container for my short-form writing. See this post for meta-level discussion about shortform as an upcoming site feature.