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Zero Points for Effort

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.

Leadership

Leadership is Not About Your Good Intentions – Johnathan Nightingale, The Co-Pour

This is a great post about how leaders evaluate members of their team, and the calamitous hypocrisy that results when they choose to assess others on results, but prefer to self-evalute on their intentions.

Nightingale opens by sharing some formative advice he received from a past manager:

“Junior people we evaluate on effort.

Senior people we evaluate on outcomes.”

He notes that there are at least two possible interpretations of this adage. The first is that different people should be managed differently. That is, less experienced team members bring energy, drive, and often lots of theoretical knowledge to the table, but in many cases have not yet accumulated strategies to navigate the realities of an organization to get things done…especially the right things.

“We evaluate junior folks on their efforts and their intentions. If they did hard, diligent work on a doomed project it’s hard to make that their fault.”

When you’re new it’s hard to know the difference between a bad idea, a good idea with the wrong team, and a good team with a bad plan.

According to Nightingale, the other interpretation is cautionary. As he notes, someone must be accountable for results. Organizations are unlikely to succeed through mere effort alone; someone must steer that effort towards the required results.

“Every company needs a set of folks who do understand the context. Who can be held accountable for the right things actually getting done.”

And you get zero points for effort.

He posits that many executives will readily agree with this point, valuing results, revering outcomes. However, he observes how often those same execs insist that they’ve been misunderstood if and when they are challenged on an insensitive or tone deaf comment or action. Isn’t that the opposite of holding oneself accountable for results?

A worthwhile read if you’re willing to face yourself and ask “Am I an ass?”

Future of Work

Did China Eat America’s Jobs? – Freakonomics Radio

While this podcast is a timely look back at economists’ predictions about the impact of US manufacturing jobs moving to China over the last few decades, I think it also holds important lessons as we look ahead to the future.

This retrospective is not kind to economists, but David Autor, a labor economist from M.I.T. takes it on the chin for his profession. He admits that economists largely endorsed sending low-wage manufacturing jobs overseas, advancing the notion that this would result in less expensive imported goods, and predicting that the departing low-wage jobs would be replaced with better jobs.

Autor concedes that this never came to pass. Instead, the speed and scale of China’s growth exceeded any historical precedent. As the US saw its manufacturing jobs move to China, who were able to produce goods for a fraction of the price they could domestically, low-skill workers were disproportionately impacted. The academic notion that workers displaced by globalization (referred to as ‘differential adverse impact’) would merely take the next best job available to them (or “costlessly reallocate to their next best opportunity”), failed to predict the reality on the ground. Towns and counties devastated by the closing of multiple factories that were cornerstones of their local economy sunk into economic blight. Workers lacked the training or education or compete for alternate roles.

Many of us will know parts or most of this story. What might be new is Autor’s assessment that the newer, better jobs that should have resulted in the US from this difficult bargain never materialized.

We see those falls in manufacturing employment correspond to about equally large falls in overall employment rates over the first 10 years in those trade-impacted locations. So every half a point that manufacturing falls, we see a total decline of about a half a point. So some people are leaving the labor market, some people are going into unemployment. Some people are going on to disability. And so the reallocation process seems to be slow, frictional, and scarring.

Of course, it’s not just income that these workers lose, but a significant source of identity, purpose and community. For many of us who’ve wondered how the current administration’s message could have resonated so deeply with so many, perhaps this is one small piece of the puzzle.

If anything, this is a fascinating and cautionary tale of the dangers of assuming that economic theory can predict with certainty our course through the uncharted waters we find ourselves in globally. As Autor himself notes:

“We’re not working with natural laws that can be as neatly summarized as Newtonian physics.”

For those of us interested not just in helping organizations thrive in the here and now, but in ensuring that the future of work is a source of meaning and social good, these are critical lessons we must be willing to hold in mind.

So, do you agree that different people should be evaluated differently? What would you do to address the loss of low-skilled manufacturing jobs in the US or elsewhere?

Image credit: Susanne Feldt via unsplash.com

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