Monday, December 20, 2010

More on Social Darwinism's Shortfalls

In September, I posted an article linking to two articles explaining why Social Darwinism is not a philosophy leading to any kind of sustainable prosperity for a company or society.  One reason given is that it treats people as commodities.  I think this bit deserves special focus because it’s so subtle, yet so central to Social Darwininsm’s indefensibility on both moral and practical grounds.

For example, it’s very possible for a worker to be tremendously competent at meeting and exceeding company standards, yet also be tremendously negative in their actions and attitudes toward their co-workers. Social Darwinism fails to see that an individual’s “on paper” productivity and his or her actual, holistic productivity are two different things; and that the latter is ultimately at least as important as the former, arguably even more so in the long run. I’ll demonstrate below how unwarranted negative actions often decreases others’ productivity.   

Smith and Jones work for the same employer.  Potentially, Smith can produce $180K of “stuff” while Jones can produce $150K of identical “stuff”.  Together, they can produce $330K worth. However, suppose Smith’s actions and attitudes cause him to actually produce $200K worth of "stuff" (contrary to his expected potential production) while his attitudes and actions toward Jones cause Jones to produce only $90K worth.   In this case, Smith gains $20K for the company from his actions and attitudes while Jones loses $60K due to Smith's attitudes and actions toward him.

While Smith’s own productivity exceeded the even the most optimistic predictions, the company still lost potential productivity on Smith overall; for Smith’s actions caused the combined actual productivity of both ($290K) to fall well short of the potential expected potential ($330K). That means Smith’s actions cost the company $40K, even as Smith himself produced $20K more than potentially expected.  In a fair world, this means Smith would either be fired or get a  $35K pay cut. Unfortunately, in this world, Jones will have to answer for his own shortfall somehow.  This is because worker shortfalls caused by a coworker’s actions and attitudes toward that worker are not detectable on accounting statements, let alone quantifiable.  This doesn’t make the $40K net loss caused by Smith any less real, only hidden.

Social Darwinism, being an essentially pro-status-quo establishment philosophy, would simply assume that Smith’s a winner and Jones is a chump – end of story (OK, that’s an oversimple caricature of how management would handle the situation, but it’s still the real-world expected outcome).  However, as shown above, there could very well be more to a situation than meets the eye (or production sheets and accounting statements). Using this assumption in this scenario, the company unwittingly reduces its overall productivity, even if its most productive workers do produce far “above and beyond the call of duty”.  The company is therefore failing to see that people can be tremendously lacking in “thick skin”, social smoothness, etc. who nevertheless can be productive for their employers in absence of other workers whose actions and attitudes can negatively affect the worker's productivity.

Result: In such an environment, people’s individual success depends as much on on their ability to have a thick skin toward people who are frankly bullies as on their actual productivity of real goods and services (and possibly not even that).  Ditto for other scenarios involving bootlicking and co-worker politics vs. actual production of saleable goods and services.* Unfortunately, “thick skin” and bootlicking are not saleable to the public; only the company’s goods and services are.  So while it’s true that good companies place primary value on worker productivity, to add anything beyond the basics of social skills of courtesy, openness, civility, fair-mindedness (i.e., bootlicking, thick skin, social schmoozing) is to add an unnecessary demand on the workers.  By doing so, the company is excluding people who may not have thick skin or are super-smooth socially, but who nevertheless can be significantly more productive in the absence of workplace politics and especially workplace abuse.  This results in the company having a harder time finding successful employees, however slight; and therefore an inefficiency the company needs to purge from its system.

Therefore, by implicitly adding “thick skin” and bootlicking to the demanded traits of a worker is to add what is, at best, a human resources inefficiently for the company.  At worst, the company might be so demanding of “thick skin” and/or social smoothness that they lose sight of the essential basic characteristic of a good worker – producing profitable goods and services the company wants.  Clearly, this company’s assumption of “Smith-winner/Jones-loser on productivity grounds alone” can only lower a company’s overall productivity of other members of society. 

In the end, Social Darwinist beliefs is essentially a back-rationalization for justifying incivility toward others. The only ones who benefit are those who need the benefit the least – namely those already at the very top (whether financially or socially), ones who can easily live the rest of their lives without work if necessary; or even if necessary can easily find other employment or start their own business. 

Ultimately, hyper-competitive, dog-eat-dog attitudes assume that only society’s already-established-and-proven “winners” can produce things that the greater society would otherwise benefit from in the long run.  In the end, the company gets what it truly values most – if they ultimately value a person’s individual productivity over how that person’s behavior affects others productivity, then they end up with highly productive yet highly unpleasant workers.  This only hurts worker morale and ultimately its actual productivity, regardless of the workers’ potential talents. Clearly this is a maladaptive philosophy, which, if left unchecked, is a long term threat not only to a company’s bottom line but to the overall prosperity of a community or even a nation.

*Obviously high-end sales is an exception to this, especially when actively prospecting for new clients. Here, social smoothness, assertiveness, and thick skin are indeed essential traits. Also, I’m ignoring traits where assertiveness and thick skin also are obviously a necessary trait in order to serve the public interest (namely security, police, and combat occupations, but professional or semi-pro athletics as well). However, this is not true for the majority of occupations.

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