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Don’t be an employee

The employer-employee relationship is sick and destructive. Don’t cultivate it.

Antoine Valot
May 30 · 5 min read

I’ve done a lot of things in my career. I’ve worked in many different respects, from freelancer (even through the staff-aug. firms, the tech equivalent of temp agencies, way back when I was young), to corporate cubicle-dweller, to traveling consultant, to nonprofit CTO, to startup guy in coffee shops. Out of all these experiences, one conclusion emerged powerfully:

There’s a lot of talk these days about flat organizations, holacracies, and super-friendly workplaces. It’s great, it’s exciting. Thoughful solutions are being advanced to fundamental problems in how we organize and manage work.

But there’s an elephant in the room. Let’s name it: Employment is serfdom.

I don’t mean the contractual relationship, by which one person pays another for work performed. That’s fine. I mean the emotional and power relationship of employee to employer.

Problem 1: Mindset

The problem, at first glance, is a cultural one. We have inherited power relationships from times that were harsher, meaner than the respectful, tolerant values we now seek. We know about kings and vassals, warlords and serfs, owners and slaves, pater familias and obedient brood, shepherd and sheep… All relationships with a lot of upward subservience and very little downward nurturing. Building an inclusive, friendly workplace within that cultural framework is like trying to build a nice house on a minefield.

We treat our employers as if they were superior… and they enjoy that perk, and demand more of it. We apply behaviors from a time when power was owned by people, not roles… and we treat people in powerful roles as if they were better people. That vestigial narrative is holding us captive in obsolete types of relationships.

Beyond the obvious issue of cultural baggage, there are two additional problems: misaligned incentives, and institutional thinking.

Problem 2: Incentives

The employer-employee relationship is messed up, because it is not symmetrical. The goals of the parties are at odds, not aligned. The employer’s goal is to take care of a specific problem, by putting a certain competency to work on it, in the most cost-effective fashion. Ideally, the competent employee will eliminate the problem, for good, thereby making themselves redundant.

The employer then has the perverse incentive of “making the most out of” their employee: Justifying their decisions to employ them forever by making them do whatever job is at hand, regardless of fit, talent or skill. This leads to terrible outcomes for all involved.

Conversely, the goal of the employee is to stay employed. Consciously or not, employees will avoid doing anything that would make them redundant. Because they worked hard to get the job, and they’re now expecting to reap the rewards of their hard job-search work, the much-touted and sough-after “job security.”

The employee is incentivized to make themselves impossible to fire… They can do that by being the best at what they do… But other tactics are just as effective: Making the work too complicated for others to take on. That’s done by creating layers of bureaucracy, inventing technical complexity, hiding vital resources, withholding important knowledge, and throttling productivity as a bargaining chip. The smart employee, understanding the need for self-preservation, might soon realize that these tactics, sadly but all too often, spell the difference between employment and unemployment.

Problem 3: Institutional Thinking

All of this points to a larger issue: Institutional thinking no longer works.

Humanity rose from the muck thanks to its ability to organize a large group of individuals into a system that perpetuates, even as the individuals themselves come and go. It’s been the way we deal with problems bigger than ourselves: Build a giant machine, made of people acting not as individuals, but as replaceable parts.

But we’re growing past the phase of history when we build machines out of people. We’re now building machines out of machines. Robotics will come along to finish what software has begun: The decoupling of humanity’s need to work from its need to survive. We will no longer require that most people toe the line, play the part, and act as cogs in giant machines. Each individual will have much more freedom to choose their way. We should see our careers as adventures, as meandering paths.

How to have a job without being an employee:

If you can, go freelance.

The Affordable Care Act may allow you the ability to do that, if bureaucratically and with much huffing and puffing. Look into it and take advantage of it. If you can be your own employer, and charge hourly rates that let you afford your own healthcare, do it.

Otherwise, think like a freelancer.

If you can’t go freelance, you can still take on a job, but you’ll want to do it with a keen sense of irony. You can be employed with an independent mindset, if you do it with a smile and with good results.

To do this you must embrace your company’s mission, but reject its vision. You must embrace your coworkers, but reject your corporate culture. You must be 100% dedicated to the people you work with and the project you share, but remain detached from the institutional story that frames it.

As you do that, a few good things will happen: Your bosses will notice that you lead the charge and always march in the front lines… and they’ll also notice that you don’t sit-beg-roll-over when asked. In other words, you take charge of what matters to them, yet you don’t play into the little mind games that insecure employees want and demand. You will prove that you can think like an entrepreneur: Confident enough to jump without a parachute (or the empty promise of one), and talented enough to never go splat.

Your boss (or their boss) secretly wishes you were, like them, strong and resilient, comfortable with uncertainty, and not co-dependent in your employment relationship. Act like you don’t need to believe in fairy tales, and you will likely earn more respect from those who are tired of telling them.

If they don’t give you more respect, you’ll have learned something valuable: That you’ve outgrown these employers, and need to seek better ones… or become your own.

Antoine Valot

Written by

I do Lean Innovation @ SQLI Switzerland, helping intrapreneurs find the right rules to break. Also a stubborn designer, infuriating speaker, and annoying dad.