2018-11-07

Buy-In

On some level, most people understand how hollow the principle of “buy-in” is in a corporate environment. Leaders don’t want “buy-in.” What they want is to avoid uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree with a change to corporate policy. So, to avoid these uncomfortable conversations, corporate managers and their ilk have developed techniques “to solicit buy-in,” or in other words to preempt uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree and replace them with a controlled narrative.


One common example of this occurs during the annual employee review process. The most efficient way to go through this process would be to simply give the employee a pat on the back if he or she has delivered on his or her responsibilities that year; and if not, to have a frank conversation about how that employee might improve. But few companies actually opt for this simple and efficient employee review format. Instead, this conversation is preemptively managed through a complicated process by which an employee sets his or her own goals, the manager signs off on them, and then the employee is subsequently assessed to his or her own goals once a year. This is, of course, utter nonsense. The only goal any employee really sets for himself or herself is “Do what my manager says and get all my work done.”


Naturally, the employer has every incentive to set the bar ever-higher year after year. “You made 17 widgets last year; I’d like to see you try for 20 this year! I think you can do it!” It sounds like a pep talk. It sounds like something that will get you promoted. But it is a ruse. The manager’s manager is asking for increased productivity “to show value-added.” So this becomes a pass-through goal that has nothing to do with the employee’s own goals and desires. The difference of 3 widgets does not often impact the employee’s life much; for that matter, it doesn’t impact the manager’s life much. It certainly doesn’t impact the company much. But it is a S.M.A.R.T. goal, and represents a percentage increase over previous goals, and so down the rabbit hole we go. Before you know it, you’re on the hook for more widgets than you produced last year, and your manager tells you with a smile that it was all your idea. And if you only manage to make 17 widgets this year – same as last year – you’ll be treated as a failure for not reaching your annual career objectives, rather than an employee with consistent and reliable productivity.


Most insidious of all, you cannot blame your manager or even the annual assessment process for creating a situation in which steady output is considered failure. After all, you set those goals.


I realized recently that the electoral process serves much the same purpose as corporate buy-in solicitation. This is political buy-in.


The government’s goals and objectives have nothing whatsoever to do with you and your life. All you want is to put food on the table, keep a roof over your family’s heads, and maybe have a little fun over the course of a life that ends far too quickly. Most of us want nothing whatsoever to do with a newly proposed light rail system or a minor change to the zoning of a neighborhood across town. Even many of us who claim to be affected by such things are mostly only psychically affected. The few major policies that do make tangible impacts on our lives – changes to tax structures, trade policies, and reductions in government spending on unnecessary things – are not generally policies that drive elections, due to a combination of voter ignorance on the economics of such issues and the fact that politicians do not really want to comply with their constituents wishes on such things, anyway. (So they make us argue about abortion instead.)


So, the politicians set their own agenda, which is most commonly self-interested, and use the democratic process to solicit “buy-in” from the rest of us. Think about it, though. What are the odds that out of everything that could ever happen by anyone’s wildest imagination, the only feasible policies boil down to two: one from the Democrats, and one from the Republicans? What are the odds that the only viable path for any government at any level is one of just two options? The notion itself is absurd. But we are handed two options and asked to choose between them. If you favor neither option, your position is not made available on the ballot and your interests will not be represented by anyone’s democracy. Just as you were forced to complete the annual review process at work, so you must vote to declare which lackluster policy you abhor least.


And if you do not vote, you become a pariah. You have no right to complain. You have no respect for our fallen soldiers. You are part of the problem! If something bad happens due to some horrible politician, it’s all your fault, because you didn’t declare your buy-in for the politician who wasn’t elected to do some equally horrible, albeit different, thing.


I don’t oppose voting, and I think people ought to do it if the choices on the ballot are genuinely meaningful to them. Similarly, sometimes the annual review process at work can be very constructive and leave everyone feeling a little better than before it started. But I think it’s important to recognize that both situations alienate a lot of us by boxing us into commitments we’d rather not make. One need not break one’s back to produce and ever-increasing number of widgets just because an annual review process requires some principle of “buy-in.” One need not spend time at the polling station declaring buy-in for some politician’s agenda. Sometimes “No thanks, I’ll just stay home and play with my daughter tonight” is a legitimate way to cast one’s ballot. Sometimes we don’t give our buy-in.