Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Michael Church's model of the corporate worker - a short critique

Michael Church makes me look like a corporate fan. In a recent post he focused on startup culture ...

Gervais / MacLeod 4: a world without Losers? | Michael O.Church

…. This is a continuation of last week’s analysis of various work cultures and the patterns of degeneracy. I’ve analyzed hierarchies that form in organizational cultures and the relationship between ascendancy and bad behavior (in particular, psychopathy).

… In these small, agile companies, does the MacLeod classification apply? Or has this dysfunctional and unfair arrangement been rendered obsolete? If so, then how? If not, then who are the Sociopaths, Clueless, and Losers? I’ll answer that. Today, I’m going to focus on the sociology of VC-istan, perhaps the first truly postmodern corporate body...

Short version -- he likes VC-istan even less than he likes conventional corporations. (Warning - he writes long form. Feel free to skip to the end.)

Church, and Gervais and MacLeod as well, model a corporation as made up of 3 groups of people (my preferred label is at the end)

  • Sociopaths [4]: Power-seeking amoral individuals who care nothing for the fate of others. They rule. (Rulers)
  • Losers: Balance-seeking moral individuals who know the rules of the game and work within them. (Workers)
  • Clueless: Low to middle status individuals who believe they owe the corporation their loyalty and that it will protect them. (Faithful)

Church sometimes adds a fourth, the technocrat. This is a more or less good version of the sociopath, seeking power but also benefits for the masses and society.

The theory has a certain appeal. Even if it's not a perfect match for the corporations I've lived in for 19 years, it's a good match for the Cults I used to visit in the 80s. [1]. They invariably featured Clueless believers at the base, and Sociopaths at the top. That matches Church's description of VC-istan.

Corporations feel more complex though. I'm not sure I've ever met the "Sociopath" Church describes [3], and I've known some wealthy executives and entrepreneurs. The ruling class I've known is usually a mixture of Church's "technocrat" and "sociopath"; with more of the former than the latter. It is true that belief in the 'goodness' of the corporation is pretty rare in the executive class, but even there I've seen (naive) exceptions.

My biggest split from Church however is that he treats Corporations as the sum of their people.  I think the complex modern publicly traded corporation is an emergent entity in its own right - more than the sum of its people (see below). It's a mindless entity to be sure, but it wants to live and grow as intensely as the average ant colony. It resists Church's 'Doom of the Clueless' [5], even if It isn't aware that it's resisting.

That said, Church's model has the advantage of parsimony, and it does explain a lot about middle manager life.

 - fn -

[1] It was a hobby of my early years. Cults loved me for some reason, I must have looked like a great candidate then.

[2] Even if it's only contributing to the "health" of some abstract Good represented by a "functioning" market.

[3] Ok, maybe the people who make a living downsizing divisions or managing major purges. They are hard people.

[4] I think Church is wrong about the etymology of psychopath/sociopath btw. It all got horribly mangled when Americans and Brits used the same two words in precisely opposite ways.

[5] Which is a bit like this Technology Review article.

See also:

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