Monthly Archives: April 2014

Economics Burlesque

When I was an undergraduate, I used to be surprised that economics has such a bad reputation.  As I’ve learned more about the world, I am less surprised, but it still disappoints me.

In theory, economics should be invaluable to making our world better, helping us make the right decisions based on our values, and build consensus around them.  Unfortunately, though there is a lot of such decision making going on in the world, most people involved don’t think of it as economics.  And what people do think of as economics based decision making, they often feel does a bad job of reflecting our collective values.

Some would say the answer is to stay away from economics – to just make all our decision-making purely from the heart, and to not try to rationalise anything.  I’m somewhat sympathetic to that point of view – I’ve even seen how good I am at rationalising some decisions that go against what I knew in my heart was right.

But I tend to prefer the more optimistic approach of helping people “understand” and “do” economics better.  That is, to involve a wider segment of the community, to help them understand the decisions that need to be made, and to think about how their worthy but often conflicting values should influence the decisions.  This avoids leaving serious economic issues to small groups that may not have our best interests at heart.

On Thursday I went along to the second in a series of evenings designed to do just that.  Hosted by Marylebone’s Cockpit Theatre and in conjunction with New Economics Foundation, Economics Burlesque (subtitled ‘Stripped down economics’) is a monthly event aimed at engaging a wider audience in a number of the important economic debates that are going on right now that matter.

Last Thursday’s was on questions related to pay differentials (i.e. why some earn so much more than others), engaging a fairly mixed audience on questions like:

  • Do salaries reflect social benefits/costs, and should they?
  • Should currently unpaid work (e.g. parenting, caring, or even helping family members move paving slabs) be paid?
  • To what extent does pay inequality reflect, or cause undesirable power dynamics?
  • Should unions have a say in setting salaries?
  • Is it better to use taxation or wage controls to reduce inequality?

These aren’t easy questions, and it never helps to engage others if you oversimplify or assume that your values are universal.  I was therefor pleased that both facilitator Timandra Harkness and key speaker Helen Kersley both avoided that kind of arrogance while still being insightful and entertaining.  The audience members responded positively; the evening was marked by a genuine willingness to listen to and learn from others’ points of view.

I’m not sure we were ever going to go with a clear, meaningful consensus, but I think everyone went away having been challenged a bit, but somewhat comforted that we’re not alone in thinking that we want to do better than the current state of affairs.

I’d definitely recommend the series as worthwhile, and have booked my seat at the next evening of Economics Burlesque on Tuesday 20th May, on the topic of “Debt”.

Good Company Culture

At the end of 2014, I will have been in the work force for 15 years.  In that time, I’ve worked or consulted for quite a few a companies.  They’ve ranged from minuscule to enormous, covered a range of industries and been headquartered in several different countries.  I’ve had working experiences that I loved and ones that I’ve hated, and I’ve come to the conclusion that life is too short to not enjoy my time at work.

Over that time, I’ve come to learn what makes an organisation/team one that I’d enjoy working in, and got better at asking the right questions in interviews to reduce the risk of a bad fit.  So, I thought I’d write on several aspects of company culture that go a long way to making it somewhere I’d want to be.

I should note that I care about the attitudes of my manager, the immediate team I’m working in, and the wider organisation.  I struggle when I get mixed messages, so I will always aim to ensure that they are positive and not at odds with each other.

  • I know some people are motivated by competition, but I much prefer working with others, and doing what needs to be done to achieve more as a team.  I need to know that I can help my colleagues without feeling like a sucker or them feeling threatened (and that I’ll be helped in return).  And I want to feel that sharing and finding new ways of working together is encouraged.
  • Next, I look at how the organisation and the manager think about mistakes.  I believe that mistakes are an inevitable part of operating a business, and the choice is just whether to recognise them (and the risk of them) or whether to hide them.  I am always impressed by organisations and individuals within teams that are happy to own up to mistakes and help others learn from them, and massively discouraged by any effort spent pushing the blame onto others.
  • This relates also to an attitude towards problems.  Some organisations are keen to recognise and resolve them, creating avenues for concerns to be raised to the level that they can be dealt with.  Others effectively blame the person that raises the problem, ensuring that problems build up until they get critical.  I’ve experienced both environments and know that a good culture in this respect significantly reduces risk of things going wrong and gives employees an ability to improve the organisation.
  • Finally, I like to feel that my colleagues and I care about each other as people rather than as cogs in an impersonal corporation.  Most companies will claim they do this, but it really does vary a lot.  I look at how people relate in meetings – whether they use language like “IT wouldn’t let us do X”, compared with “Robert had X concern”.  I look at how managers respond when someone is sick or chooses to take time off for another commitment, whether with genuine concern or preoccupation with how it will affect the company.  And I look at how colleagues behave at the pub – whether they interact genuinely (including with more senior management) or whether they’re presenting a fake persona designed to impress.

Discriminating against the majority?

I haven’t had much chance to think about designing a marketplace for work and problem-solving, so I’m going to defer my follow-up post on that topic.

So, instead, I’m writing a post about an aspect of diversity and inclusion, a topic that I had previously blogged about in a workplace context, which some recent news has forced me to think about a bit more.

The media has recently examined the issue of gender expectations of children’s books and toys. Certain toy companies and shops have been pressured into no longer explicitly defining toys as for boys or girls. And recently in the UK, the Independent has developed a policy to no longer review children’s books targeted at a specific gender.

Each of these articles is inevitably criticised, as people point out that most girls like dolls and most boys like trucks, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

It might sound simplistic to say this, but we need to be able to include everyone, those in the majority in some respect (i.e. conforming with some stereotype) and those in the minority. Left to chance, our minds tend to focus on the most common cases and to think they are universal, hence I don’t think there was anything intentionally excluding about labelling books and toys as just for boys or just for girls (and indeed it does make life a bit easier for the parent of the stereotypical kid).  But it doesn’t take too much thought to recognise that marketing as if the stereotypes were universal does tend to exclude those that don’t conform and reinforce the stereotypes.

For that reason, I believe that putting thought and effort into going beyond our stereotypes is necessary in order to be more inclusive, and the majority shouldn’t see it as an effort to exclude, devalue or criticise them.  Obviously such actions shouldn’t extend to actually excluding the majority (and I recognise that it is occasionally a grey area), but we’d benefit from a more inclusive society if we could stop claiming persecution against the majority when it isn’t.