Monthly Archives: October 2013

Different arguments against inequality

In this blog post I wanted to write about three competing arguments against inequality.

Firstly, there is a pragmatic argument, that inequality makes the world a less pleasant place to live in.  It increases crime, leaves the wealthy as well as the poor fearful and leads to resources being disengaged or wasted on marginally worthwhile activities.  In its extreme, it can lead to anarchy or revolution.  The nice thing about this argument is that it doesn’t rely on goodwill or ethical arguments, but it can lead to suggestion that we focus on reducing the symptoms of inequality, rather than inequality itself.

Next, there is an absolutist argument that inequality is wrong, and in an ideal world we would be equal.  In some ways this is appealing, as once you take it as given, you remove a lot of the judgement required.  However, I don’t think many people are prepared to take it as given.  Most people don’t consider absolute equality as being natural or even possible, even if they do consider it ultimately desirable.  Many feel that the steps that would need to be taken to achieve absolute equality would be worse than the problems of inequality – eg state control, socialism, loss of incentive to contribute.

The third argument against inequality is one of fairness.  Humans instinctively like fairness, and a lot see the current levels of inequality as fair.  Arguments that CEOs should not receive hundreds of times the pay of their average worker, or that your wealth shouldn’t be determined by who your parents are, fall into this camp.  Generally an appeal to fairness would not lead to absolute equality; people talk about being fairly rewarded for hard work or talent, and generally consider lottery winnings unfair.  And there is a strong fairness argument in the public against people who don’t contribute being rewarded.  But, as subjective as fairness is (and difficult to grapple with, at least for me), it seems to be a powerful argument in society against many aspects of inequality.

Right now, I believe we’re at a point where all three arguments would imply that we should take steps to reduce inequality from current levels, so there isn’t actually a need to decide that one of the three arguments beats the others.  I do, however, believe it is worth bearing all three in mind, ensuring we don’t argue against one but ignore than others, or designing measures that address one at the expense of the others.

Measuring talent in the workforce

A lot of time in the workplace is spent ranking and scoring employees.

I understand why they do it, but I would question each of these reasons.

If they don’t do it, they think they’ll be accused of not caring about their people.  There are far better ways to show that you care about an employee’s happiness and productivity at work than trying to simplify their success into a single score.  Honestly talking to them about what they want and what they can offer from a role shows that you care about them as an individual, not just a cog in a machine.

Scoring makes the desired outcomes clear.  It is true, measures give a very strong signal of desired behaviour.  However, it can cause people to do what is counted, rather than what counts.  Most of us have experienced gaming of scoring systems in the workplace, even by well intended employees that came into roles wanting to achieve the best outcome for the company.

Employers think that competition will push their employees to work harder, to beat their colleagues.  I am willing to accept that a small proportion of jobs require the individual to focus so hard on one aspect, competing against their competitors, and disregarding all other factors.  Maybe athletes (though in recent years we’ve seen that even they can take winning too seriously).  But for most jobs, collaboration, team work, and thinking outside the square help the company more than competing in one dimension.

Employers believe that employees will only consider compensation and promotion fair if is based on objective rankings.   While employees do value fairness in compensation and promotion, most scoring systems don’t lead employees to feel fairness has been achieved.  Instead, they see evidence that the system is gamed, that favorites are promoted and those that truly help the business are held back.

Companies believe in *talent* – the idea that there are a small number of brilliant people that need recognition and promotion to become leaders of the future.  While different employee’s aptitudes differ, I don’t feel chasing after stars pays off.  It escalates mistakenly identified ‘stars’ beyond what they are capable of, and alienates others.  It also tends to narrow the definition of successful contribution.  I believe good outcomes in an organisation are far more likely to arise from working to engage all employees, listening and helping them get into roles that suit their skills and interests, and communicating honestly about their actual contribution and ways in which they can contribute going forward.  Creating open opportunities for employees to contribute and develop lets the real leaders and other talented individuals emerge and contribute in a more natural way.