I'm not really all that mysterious

one man's slack as another man's creative meditation

There is a meme floating around on the blogosphere, promulgated by Duncan Riley’s spin on a post by Jason Calcanis of Mahalo fame, and seconded by technophiliac Robert Scoble. The idea is that startup companies cannot afford slackers, so anyone who is not a work-a-holic needs to be fired. (Note that Calcanis has eased off on this statement.)

Which, on principle, is true. By definition, a startup does not have many assets to leverage, and most of the time, it involves squeezing the last drop of productivity from everyone involved.

But it becomes easy to forget that employees are actual human beings and not just another type of machine that can be overclocked and otherwise hacked. Teams live or die by factors like morale and social cohesion, and to ignore this is to fail from the outset.

Firing people damages morale severely. It doesn’t matter if it was justified. It doesn’t matter if your employees totally agree with the decision. Something visceral arises in people when one of the member of the team is otherwise discarded, and it will take some skillful damage control to rectify the situation.

When you look at it this way, sometimes it may be more worthwhile to modify behavior than to cut someone loose.

In clinical studies, it has been repeatedly shown that positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement when seeking to change behavior.

So none of this passive-aggressive work ethic bullshit. You need to make your expectations known up front. If you anticipate regular death-marches, you better tell your employees that before you hire them. Because if you don’t, and you need to have a death-march, there will be much anger and bitterness directed at you, and it will be completely deserved.

People have been known to give up their lives for their work in many situations. Take, for example, residency training in medicine. The pathway to becoming a board-certified physician is a long, thankless road, starting from four years of undergraduate study, followed by another four years of medical school. Almost all residency training programs are at least another additional three years after that, although most surgical specialties require at least five years after that. And if you want to subspecialize, look for at least another two years. So you’re looking at at least eleven years of higher education before you get paid reasonably.

One of the interesting phenomena during my residency training was the adaptation to the mandatory 80-hour work week maximum as prescribed by the ACGME. (Mind you, this is down from the average 120-hour work week prior to the guidelines. Yes, there are really that many hours in a week, though not many more.) In those first few years while programs struggled with making their hours more sane, there was a lot of passive-aggressive bullshit going on. The senior residents, who looked upon the limits with disdain, would deem you weak for demanding to be let out on time. Never mind the objective evidence that it was pretty dangerous for patients to have invasive procedures done to them by someone who is extremely sleep-deprived. Now that those folks are gone, people are more concerned about getting people home after working for 30 hours, and people are a lot more helpful, and willing to pick up the resulting slack. Morale is a lot better, and there’s a lot less bitterness and hatred flying around.

But why do people tolerate such absurd working conditions? Barring the possibility that some of these people are simply insane, part of it is the extreme ability to delay gratification. Note that I said delay, not foreswear. Even the most dedicated employees will want to get rewarded, and if there is simply no light at the end of the tunnel, then the only sane approach is to half-ass it and put in the minimum amount required to keep your job, or simply bail out completely. What kind of educated person will tolerate sweatshop conditions with no possibility of remuneration? None will.

The other thing that is absolutely required is passion. Absolutely no one will sacrifice anything for something that they don’t believe in. Even if death-marches are involved, people will tolerate all sorts of suffering if they themselves believe that it must be done. There is no other way that residents would endure the 80 hour work-weeks, with up to two 30-hour shifts per week, and only four days off a month. (Which, if you use my residency program as a guide, comes out to something like getting paid $11.50/hour.)

If you believe in the technology you’re deploying, or if you think that you are providing a service that needs to be provided, the hours, while painful, will be secondary to the cause.

We’re talking about fervor, people. You need zealots to be working for you. Otherwise, you’re probably going to get screwed.

And don’t underestimate the necessity for down time. If you just need workhorse drones who don’t need to think, flogging them until they collapse is probably a feasible long-term strategy. But if you need people to come up with good ideas, or creative solutions, you need your people to come out of the isolated cocoon of the work environment and experience some sort of alternate mental stimulation. Think about how Einstein came up with his best ideas. He was doing something else entirely different than physics at the time. Nothing destroys creativity better than monotonous toil, and if you treat your workers like prisoners, expect them to start behaving like prisoners.

So if I were you, I’d put away the whips and chains, and start thinking of creative but inexpensive ways to reward your employees for good work.

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