In Machiavelli’s The Prince, there is the line, “It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.” Fear is considered a greater motivator than love, so potentially a more useful tool for leaders.
Not to go too deep down a conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, but I suspect some tech companies are embracing this stratagem lately for several reasons. The industry hasn’t really had really big reasons to feel widespread fear in, like, 20 years.
I also came across this George MacDonald quote: “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” (He was apparently a 19th century Scottish author and minister.) I’m going to ignore the “compliment” part, since that is very applicable on a human-to-human level, but we’re talking business here.
Love and fear existing together isn’t usually particularly healthy, and trust and love not existing together doesn’t seem particularly healthy, either. How are you feeling about work these days?
As tech layoffs continue – including here in Waterloo Region – it’s hard to get them off one’s mind. Makes it hard not to ponder our relationship to work, too, whether through the lens of centuries-old quotes or otherwise.
I think we have plenty of fear to go around these days. I think trust and love have taken a serious hit, and they aren’t going to be easy to rebuild. Particularly for those experiencing their first layoff. That’s a rough one, and it can’t be any easier the later in your career that it happens.
Reading the sentiments expressed at the beginning of this Business Insider article, I feel for these folks, though as a veteran of tech layoffs, grizzled old me also shakes my head at their naivete.
Losing a job sucks for anyone, though it can be harder to sympathize with folks who have been securely employed, highly paid and fairly coddled for a long time. But when you’ve been sold a story for that long, such an abrupt ending is going to come as a shock.
When you’ve believed (in) your employer to that degree, it’s a harsh lesson to learn that security at work, especially in tech, is an illusion. It’s strange, the way the BI article lays it out, to consider Wall Street as having a more honest employment model than tech. It’s certainly not good for people, but when everything is openly transactional and “just business,” at least everyone knows where they stand and can plan accordingly.
The quote from Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel’s Out of Office, referenced in the BI article, provides an interesting summary: “You already have a family, chosen or otherwise. And when a company uses that rhetoric, it is reframing a transactional relationship as an emotional one. It might feel enticing, but it is deeply manipulative and, more often than not, a means to narrativize paying people less to do more work. Family evokes not just a closeness but a devotion and a lasting bond, infused with sacrifice: family comes first.”
Then I read this quote in a Gapingvoid newsletter, which refers to some ways nepotism has business value, though it makes an equally relevant point here: “...members of high-performing teams often refer to each other as “family.” They trust each other. They care about each other, not just the work. They can be honest and vulnerable. For some business owners, especially in low-trust societies, building a team around their actual family may be the quickest route to a family-like dynamic.”
Reminds me of the Machiavelli quote. If you can’t achieve love, go with fear. If you can’t build trust, fake it with family. Or, in tech, “family.” Hmm.
But business IS transactional, whether the company chooses to be open about that or chooses to craft a story. Doesn’t mean that the leaders at some companies don’t genuinely care about their people and want to build good things and not be extractive or exploitative. But these are still companies, and at some point they are going to have to make hard, painful decisions.
It’s up to workers to decide if they believe the company – and the story – or not. But when you haven’t known much of anything else in your career, the story is really, really good for you (and your actual family), and it brings security and fulfillment, why wouldn’t you want to believe it and ride it out as long as you can?
Once you have been through rough times in the work world, whether you were jettisoned or left to ride it out, trusting becomes harder. You know now that the story was made up. The words and the actions didn’t align. Bad things have happened, they could happen again, and you will never 100 per cent understand why or get all the answers you think you need.
The fact that the story was ultimately a disguise is the biggest source of damage to that trust, but it’s also influenced to a significant degree by that lack of sufficient information or explanation. It prevents closure. Even if such a Holy Grail of information doesn’t actually exist (and it rarely does.) It can catalyze cynicism and possibly paranoia. They’re manageable chronic professional conditions, but incurable.
After a certain point, notions of love or trust where work is concerned don’t register. You don’t believe any story. You can still choose companies and teams that seem interesting, that have enough opportunities and align with your ethics and career goals. Or maybe they just pay the highest salary. But experience has taught you that no job is ever really “safe” and you know that you’re not family.
You can be perfectly content and do great work somewhere where you don’t believe the story. You can earn skills, meet great people, and love working somewhere where you don’t trust the ride. You can take the job just for the money. You don’t have to be passionate about the product, service or industry. You can leave whenever it’s right for you because you got what you wanted out of it, you don’t like changes that are coming or have happened, or you’re not willing to make the sacrifices required.
Your career doesn’t have to include fear, trust or love. You can be employee of the month and yet always know how far your fingers are from the rip cord and what conditions would cause you to pull it.
In the days, weeks and months to come, the companies that hire laid-off tech workers will be getting people who are different from who they were before they were let go. It will be harder to win their trust. They will be more inclined to poke holes in the stories their employers tell. They will be less willing to give the benefit of the doubt, to wait and see. Even if they’re not working for tech companies.
Some folks may become entrepreneurs because the only person they feel like trusting from here on out is themselves.
To give people realistic expectations of change or recovery in life, we’re often advised to think of it as balancing a scale. You don’t get over something in a couple of weeks that you were living with or dealing with for 10 years, for example. Whether it’s quitting smoking or getting divorced or whatever. We need to give ourselves grace and time.
If you can get laid off from somewhere you’ve worked for five, 10 or 20 years, that told a story of how you were all changing the world together, how long will it take you to trust your next employer? What would convince you? Especially when no one else is likely to be able to spin up a story as good as that first one.
Now, there are plenty of companies that don’t deserve to be trusted, let alone loved. They’ve done too many dumb, greedy and/or malicious things. To their employees, to their customers, to the planet, usually without real consequences. Though sometimes individuals start making choices that initiate waves in those companies and then in entire industries or sectors. The hospitality industry has seen a fair bit of that in recent years. Health care, too. Unionization continues its fight, but it’s a steep uphill battle against very big foes. But sometimes they do have to answer for the stories.
So, let’s review. “It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.” These days there’s plenty of fear to go around, and not much love. Love tends to wither fairly quickly when fear has taken root. Save it for people, not companies. Friends, family, even co-workers. Growing it with them helps manage the fear, too.
“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” I think this is going to become the gold standard for the best companies to work for. As noted, earning trust is going to get harder, and take more consistent effort and transparency. And we already discussed where love belongs.
The realities for companies getting started may be rather different. Older, wiser, more wary workers. Less investment to be had. Money not being free. It’s going to take a lot of discipline to build businesses. Who’s going to have the time or energy to spin stories, too?
Perhaps in another 20 years when there’s a fresh, new crop of tech workers, and some new and ultimately ridiculous bubble, people will be super optimistic again and eager to believe a new batch of stories.
But for these roaring 20s? I think tech’s tagline may become: “What’s love got to do with it?”
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.