Home > rant > Get overpaid so people will listen to you

Get overpaid so people will listen to you

April 15, 2012

Have you read the recent article in the New York Times about how lower-status monkeys are less healthy and more stressed out than higher-status monkeys? Their gene expression actually responds to changes in social status. Does this resonate with your experiences with humans?

It does with me, and for us people I’d rephrase it this way: your concerns and ideas are given attention in direct relation to your status. Your stress levels rise as you realize your status is lower and your risks have grown.

Here are some examples from work. I’ve been disappointed to notice, time after time, that my ideas are considered important and innovative in direct proportion to how much they are paying me to have them. If I’m underpaid then nobody thinks I am all that smart; nevermind being a friggin’ volunteer (with some exceptions, but don’t stop me, I’m on a roll). This perversely makes me want to get overpaid just so I’ll get listened to.

Cuz why? Didn’t you ever notice that overpaid people’s ideas are about as good as anyone else’s but they are framed as pure brilliance? I have. It even works head-to-head: two people of different status come up with the same exact idea but the one who is more important was listened to and their idea championed. Oh yeah, I’ve seen it, and so have you (example: when I was at D.E. Shaw, we rated other people’s ideas with a “probability of success” in an effort to estimate their expected payouts; someone once showed me their idea, which was identical to one of Larry Summer’s ideas, but had come 2 years before and had scored about half as well. But my fried wasn’t an MD making $5 million per year so clearly his ideas weren’t as good!).

A similar thing happens with problems rather than ideas in a workplace. The worst examples of over-worked and under-appreciated situations clearly don’t happen at the top. For example, when I worked at MSCI, it seemed like the sales guys, who defined the top there, spent more time strutting around making sure each and every one of their efforts went appreciated than doing the actual efforts, whereas the lowly dev-ops guys, and the guys setting up the initial portfolios for the new clients, were treated as an afterthought, only noticed if something went wrong. They’d stay up all night fixing something, probably someone else’s mistake, and nobody would even thank them.

[It still seems so ironic that the most technical people there are also the least appreciated, since the product is essentially technical expertise. Or is it? Maybe I've got it wrong, and it's really about selling technical expertise in a package that makes people feel safe and pious. Maybe the black box we're selling doesn't even have to work.]

If you are thinking that everyone at MSCI is in finance and is thus overpaid and pampered, then you’ve got it wrong, it’s a brutal atmosphere, like much of finance. If you don’t believe me, read my friend Katya’s blog, Left with Balls, where she talks about the spell of Wall Street.

Taking one step back, this kind of thing strikes me as unfair and frustrating. The idea that the lowest-ranked also has to deal with ridiculous stress and chronic health problems does not jive with my inherent concept of justice. Although it does seem like a natural response to a system that’s already been created (as in, as a consequence of being frustrated because my ideas are ignored, I want to get overpaid to get listened to, so I’m joining in on the perverted game and furthering the system), it doesn’t seem like we’ve done a particularly good job setting up these systems.

For a country that putatively considers itself a democracy, we seem to have a tremendous amount of respect for a rat-race corporate hierarchy. Is that a contradiction? Or is the American dream actually to start a hierarchy and to sit at the top? Do other people identify with the guys on the bottom or the guy at the top? Or the guys in the middle clawing upwards?

Question: is it really impossible to listen to and evaluate ideas based on their merit? How about anonymous polling of  problems? It’s certainly technologically feasible, but we don’t do it.

Question: Is it really impossible to appreciate people who make things work behind the scenes? How about we ask people to sit with other people in entirely different departments in a rotation to witness what other people actually do? I really think that would help with the appreciation problem (but not if the technical people in your company are in India and the salesguys are in New York).

For the record, when I start a company I’ll do these things. Of course, I’ll be sitting up there at the top thinking what a great idea I had to do them.

Categories: rant
  1. Aaron
    April 15, 2012 at 8:25 am

    You are such a communist.

    • JSE
      April 15, 2012 at 10:22 am

      Actually, communists are pretty crap at eliminating status hierarchies! Ask somebody who grew up in China in the 60s with parents of a disfavored class background how stressful their childhood was.

  2. April 15, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    I created something called the Vangelizer Reduction Principle that applies to this situation:

    All things in the universe can be regarded as logical and symbolic constructs that can be boiled down to a simple fact – everyone is an asshole.

    Of course, I was the first person to think of this and I deserve to be CEO of everything.

  3. April 16, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I found that very early in my career. Indeed, there’s a whole industry based on this – consulting. You pay them megabucks to come with an idea that most likely originated with one the employees they talked to, but hey, you pay megabucks to consultants, so you LISTEN to them (unless you want them to be the sacrificial lamb, which is their other role).
    BTW, it doesn’t have to be overpayment, although it’s the easiest way to “prove” status.

  4. Bertie
    April 17, 2012 at 3:55 am

    “The idea that the lowest-ranked also has to deal with ridiculous stress and chronic health problems does not jive with my inherent concept of justice”

    Yep

  5. Jay
    April 17, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    When things get bad, wealthy people can usually still feed their families. Things have been bad enough often enough in our history that we’re all wired to try to get and keep status; it’s a human universal. When people have to choose between being right in a low-status way and being wrong in a high-status way, 4 out of 5 choose the latter, and they’re right to. Having been right in a low-status way is the kiss of death; it’s threatening enough to high-status individuals that they’ll crucify you. Probably not literally, anymore.

  6. ael
    April 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Please do start a company!

    Because “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” (Jeff Hammerbacher) ;)

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