I wanted to make this post because we currently live in a world in which a majority of people need to submit themselves to a 40 to 80 hour a week job in a tyrannical organization, but frankly there is very little good advice about how to navigate the working world. Here I present a short essay on what I believe to be the most valuable lessons I learned on my first coroporate job out of college at a large multinational defense contractor. Even at work, nobody taught me these rules; these are hard earned “street smarts” I had to find out on my own. While I worked specifically as a software engineer, the advice presented here is very general to all jobs. Anyone should ingrain these principles in their working life. Some of these tips should apply to life in general, but are especially relevant to the working world.
Rule #1: Trust is the most valuable currency
First let us define trust.
Trust: The belief that another party will deliver on an explicit promise that was agreed upon, and that the other party is concerned about your interests
Thus, trust has three dimensions: honesty, competency, and cooperation.
Not to be too pedantic, but let us define party.
Party: An autonomous entity. In the working world, these are workers, managers, executives, businesses, and corporations.
Party in the definition of trust applies to both the promiser and the promisee.
Trust is the most valuable currency at work for numerous reasons, but here are just a couple:
- Trust means things get done more efficiently
- Conversely, lack of trust breeds infighting and bureaucracy, which is a morass on getting anything done
- Lack of trust also breeds resentment and back stabbing; this is a dangerous loop since both feed on each other (broken trust -> resentment/back stabbing -> more broken trust)
Trust between two parties establishes a bidirectional relationship; parties that can establish trust between each other tend to work together, and if one party breaks one direction of the relationship, the other direction is inevitably broken.
Consequently, trust is especially valuable because of its scarcity. This is because parties tend to be short sighted and will almost always enjoy a significant short term material benefit by reneging on a promise. Therefore, trust suffers a well known problem in economics known as Prisoner’s Dilemma. The formulation of Prisoner’s Dilemma that is relevant to us is called Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD). A full discussion of the problem is out of scope, but I will try to give a brief description that has nothing to do with prisoners:
Suppose there are two entry level employees Jordan and Emma. One day just for fun their boss Mike isolates each in separate conference rooms and offers them two choices. Each can decide to cooperate or defect. If both cooperate, both get $300. If one chooses defect and the other chooses cooperate, the defector gains $500 and the cooperator loses $100. If both defect, both lose $10. Because Mike the boss is a veritable maniac with loads of cash, he decides to play the same game every week.
On any given day, both Jordan and Emma will be tempted to defect and gain a significant reward. Suppose one day Taylor Swift is selling concert tickets. Both Jordan and Emma are Taylor Swift stans, so extra cash is tempting. Each of them will likely reason, “Well, I could make $200 more if I defect, and I don’t have as much to lose (-$10), so since I’m lusting over a VIP Taylor Swift ticket right now I will defect”.
The numbers chosen in this game I think are fairly representative, although they vary a lot depending on the situation. Now that I wrote this, Mike’s ridiculous game seems like an actually good idea… I digress.
Research into the IPD problem suggests that the best long term strategy is some variant of tit-for-tat, regardless of other parties' strategies. That means that both Jordan and Emma should begin by assuming good will in the other person and defect at some point only if the other person defects themselves. This insight leads to a very valuable corollary, coupled with an important observation.
Corollary #1 of Rule #1: Always initially assume that the other party is trustworthy
This means that, going into any relationship between anybody in the workplace, you should assume goodwill from the start and provide goodwill. Only then is it possible to foster trust and a productive relationship.
Observation #1: Ordinary parties tend to assume other parties are not trustworthy
Observation #1 comes from my experience. It is unfortunate that people (bosses, project managers, executives, etc) tend to not give others the benefit of the doubt, especially if you are in a subordinate position and are unable to use leverage (like an entry level employee). This means that, for relationships that you desire, trust must be earned. You need to give the other party a reason that you are trustworthy. However, do not go overboard on these efforts since the optimal strategy is “tit-for-tat”, not “be a pushover”.
As a worker, trust can be earned in multiple ways that follow from the definition; by excelling at your job, by being honest, by promising on things that you can reasonably expect to deliver on, etc. These can be summed up by the word reliability.
If you are a worker, you can assume that your superiors trust you if you see the following:
- They are not micromanaging your work
- They are not surveilling your actions in any form
- They are giving you honest, critical feedback
- You are able to get a reliable response on questions you have about work
- You are able to get an honest response on any question
- Your superiors are honest and transparent about their intentions, goals, etc
- They promote workers by individual merit instead of political considerations
By no means is this list exhaustive, nor is a failure to deliver on any of these points alone a red flag. However, violation of a collection of these points is a red flag.
If you suspect that trust is broken, you must find out why in the fullest picture possible because it will not be obvious; a lack of trust in any form permits deception and dishonesty. The best way to find out is by politely confronting your boss, but you can also find out indirectly by confronting other coworkers. You need to be very clear that you do not want to be caught cold handed by hidden, brewing gossip and rumors about you. Obviously, your ability to confront will be limited by your leverage in the workplace as we shall see in Rule #3, so you need to be strategic about your confrontations.
If you ask whether this is a rant about my previous workplace, yes it is, although this is a criticism of myself as much as my workplace.
An informal consequence of Rule #1 and Corollary #1 to Rule #1 is that gossip of any form is a sign of an unhealthy, mediocre, and actively destructive workplace. You should never engage in gossip, and either politely squash gossip or try to leave if gossip becomes rampant.
Trust can be easily broken. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Glass, China, and Reputation, are easily crack’d, and never well mended.”
Corollary #2 of Rule #1: Be trustworthy and reliable
Given the discussion so far, this should be a no brainer.
If instead you wish to fail, “… be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit, you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you. Master this one habit, and you will always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle, you will be outrun by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even some mediocre turtles on crutches” – Charlie Munger
This goes for all parties, not just workers.
Rule #2: Informal trust is scarcer and even more valuable than formal trust
By informal trust I mean the following:
Informal Trust: The belief that the other party is concerned about you and will act in your interests.
Notice how I dropped the “explicit promise” requirement. Informal trust usually arises from months to years of cultivating meaningful relationships and doing favors for each other, often with no expectation of compensation.
There are many situations in the workplace in which you will have very little leverage, especially if you are at the bottom of the corporate ladder, so you will need to rely on your friends to lift you up.
Corollary #1 of Rule #2: Build strong relationships with informal trust as much as possible wherever reasonable
Because it is really rare, and there will come a time when you need them.
Corollary #2 of Rule #2: Do favors without expectation of compensation
This is actually an insight born out of psychology professor Robert Cialdini in his book “Influence” (which is unfortunately sought after by marketers more than anyone else). You do favors for two reasons: you have morals, and it is counterintuitively the best policy. You will be surprised by how much doing unrequited favors does for you in return in the long term. A favor can be as simple as talking with and engaging with another coworker who might be difficult to talk to.
Rule #3: Leverage is the second most valuable currency
Let us define leverage.
Leverage: Some fact that gives a party a real advantage in a negotiation with another party
Leverage is superordinate to trust, meaning trust is a form of leverage. This means that, as a worker, if many coworkers and seniors trust you, you can use that as leverage in a negotiation. As a worker, this is the most valuable form of leverage because a large part of your reputation is in your control. However, leverage also includes other things.
Observation #2: Leverage in a capitalist society is defined by market power
Observation #3: America is a capitalist society, dominated by a handfull of corporations
For workers, leverage when negotiating with a boss can come in the form of (in order of relative impact):
- Current market value of your skill
- Trust from coworkers and general reputation
- Union power
- Alternative job offers
- Workplace norms and bureaucratic rules
- Other laws
For bosses, leverage when negotiating with workers come in the form of (in order of relative impact):
- Current market value of your skill
- Unique job benefits and opportunities
- Corporate power
- Ability to terminate without cause and workers' need to survive
- Workplace norms and bureaucratic rules
- Other laws
Observation #4: In America, unions are weak so on average bosses have the upper hand over workers
If you compare the two lists above, it is clear that in America, after you adjust for market value of your skills, trust you’ve gained, and unique benefits and opportunities your workplace offers, bosses bring more power to the negotiating table because corporations are powerful and unions are nearly non-existent. You will notice this when your boss does not give you a meaningful raise after you have proven yourself.
Observation #5: Typically in the workplace in America, the baseline for trust between two parties is determined by each party’s leverage over the other
I mean that, in comparing what each party expects from the other in a trusting relationship, the relative value of the promises that are expected to be delivered from each party is determined by each party’s leverage over the other. Thus, workers who bring more leverage can expect more compensation for each unit of labor-effort, while bosses who bring more leverage can expect more labor-effort out of the worker for each unit of compensation.
I personally think this is sort of screwed up, but in capitalist society this is reality. Therefore, if you rail against how much you are getting compared to how hard you are working, just get a reality check. Think about forming a union, which has been so denigrated by corporate propaganda and suppressed by corporate America using violence.
Okay, this is it for now. The rules here were spelled out in relative importance, #1 being the most important. Note that these rules are general to all relationships between different parties, although I focused on the employer employee relationship. So go out there, be a survivor because you need to survive.