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. Questions of what 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?