I used to run a business that handled backups and security, or hack mitigation for websites and small businesses. It was a good business, and I enjoyed it. It started from nothing, and slowly grew until it could support me full time, without much extra. But right around that time, I started running into issues – the business needed to grow, and in order to grow, it needed to change – to be lower touch, and scale better, larger. We were at the limits of what I (as the only technical staff) could provide.
But that’s not what happened, because I needed money. And when you need money, you start making the wrong decisions – prioritizing one-off deals that provide short-term cashflow over the slower, steadier work of scaling the business. So that’s exactly what I did – a lot of individual deals, a lot of individual work that would get us by, month to month, but didn’t provide any lasting benefit, and didn’t really help the business grow. Because we needed the money, we needed it to work, we stalled, and couldn’t continue growing.
I’ve been an employee now for several years, but I can see that the same concept exists here – with different consequences, different symptoms, but similarly dire outcomes.
Good Employees are not warm bodies
I’m grateful to not be in a business that just needs a warm body in a specified location, following well defined directions. I’m paid not just to blindly follow instructions to get something from point a to point b – I’m paid because I’m a person with thoughts and ideas, who can offer insight and solutions to problems. I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this. My particular field, and employer do a good job of emphasizing autonomy and the idea that everyone is expected to think critically about the business – but I think deep down this is basically universal. I think good employees, in most positions, and most fields, are hired not just to accomplish tasks, but because they’re smart, driven, and willing to give themselves to the problems and challenges a business faces. An employee who just does the work asked of them as it’s laid out is a very smart robot, and will soon find themselves replaced with just that.
But I need this job
But there’s a conflict here. Employers want their employees to be happy and productive. Employees want to feel secure. But often employees feel like they are tied to a job, to a company, for whatever reason – maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck and don’t think they can afford the time it would take to find a new job. Maybe they’re afraid they can’t find a job with benefits they’ve become accustomed to. Maybe they’re afraid of starting over somewhere new. It doesn’t matter. As soon as someone decides that losing their job is a real risk that they’re unwilling to take, they’ll start acting to protect it – in ways that are often counter to the best interests of themselves and the business.
Conflict is difficult for most people, especially conflict with superiors. However – conflict, used constructively, breeds success. A workplace without any conflict at all – opposing ideas, heated discussions, impassioned cases – is doomed. Even smart people have dumb ideas, and if no one is questioning the people making plans, everyone will be worse for it. If employees aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe in up to the point of leaving a job for it, it’s a loss for them, and for the business. Passionate people do good work. Agreeable people have a pleasant, comfortable time making garbage.
Relationships are subtle things, that require delicate balance. To achieve full potential, that balance constantly has to be checked and tweaked, making sure that both sides are happy and committed. The moment one side falls down and admits that they need the other too much, that they’re willing to accept too much compromise, that they’ll do work they don’t believe in as long as they keep getting paid, the balance is lost. It doesn’t matter if there are good, caring people on both sides of the equation – when one needs the other more than is reciprocated, it’s impossible to work as well as it could.
Good employees are willing to quit
This is not to say good employees should quit jobs often, or early, or that an employee who has been somewhere a long time is bad – rather: in order to maximize productivity and satisfaction for both sides, the employee has to be as ready to quit as the business is ready to fire them. Part of the employee’s job then, is to make sure that they’re always in a position – financially, emotionally, whatever – to be able to leave, and survive until they can find a new position.
So I don’t know, the least you can do is conspicuously keep a “go-bag” with a couple of days worth of clothing and some beef jerky in it by your desk. Just to let everybody know how ready you are. When your boss gets out of line, just subtly point at it and raise your eyebrows. Or, I guess, get your finances in order. Less fun, but probably more effective.