By this terminal stage, the competent have been driven out, quit or burned out.
What happens with the competent retire, burn out or opt out? It’s a question few bother to ask because the base assumption is that there is an essentially limitless pool of competent people who can be tapped or trained to replace those who retire, burn out or opt out, i.e. quit in favor of a lifestyle that doesn’t require much in the way of income or stress.
These assumptions are no longer valid. A great many essential services that are tightly bound to other essential services are cracking as the competent decide (or realize) they’re done with the rat-race.
The drivers of the Competent Opting Out are obvious yet difficult to quantify. Those retiring, burning out and opting out will deny they’re leaving for these reasons because it’s not politic to be so honest and direct. They will offer time-honored dodges such as “pursue other opportunities” or “family obligations.”
1. The steady increase in workloads, paperwork, compliance and make-work (i.e. work that has nothing to do with the institution’s actual purpose and mission) that lead to burnout. There is only so much we can accomplish, and if we’re burdened with ever-increasing demands for paperwork, compliance, useless meetings, training sessions, etc., then we no longer have the time or energy to perform our productive work.
I wrote a short book on my experience of Burnout. I believe it is increasingly common in jobs that demand responsibility and accountability yet don’t provide the tools and time to fulfill these demands. Once you’ve burned out, you cannot continue. That option no longer exists.
For others, the meager rewards simply aren’t worth the sacrifices required. The theme song playing in the background is the Johnny Paycheck classic Take this job and shove it.
Healthcare workloads, paperwork and compliance are one example of many. Failure to complete all the make-work can have dire consequences, so it becomes necessary to do less “real work” in order to complete all the work that has little or nothing to do with actual patient care. Alternatively, the workload expands to the point that it breaks the competent and they leave.
2. Loss of autonomy, control, belonging, rewards, accomplishment and fairness. Professor Christina Malasch pioneered research on the causes of burnout, which can be summarized as any work environment that reduces autonomy, control, belonging, rewards, accomplishment and fairness. Despite a near-infinite avalanche of corporate happy-talk (“we’re all family,”–oh, barf) this describes a great many work environments in the US: in a word, depersonalized. Everyone is a replaceable cog in a great impersonal machine optimized to maximize profits for shareholders.
3. The politicization of the work environment. Let’s begin by distinguishing between policies enforcing equal opportunity, pay, standards and accountability, policies required to fulfill the legal promises embedded in the nation’s social contract, and politicization, which demands allegiance and declarations of loyalty to political ideologies that have nothing to do with the work being done or the standards of accountability necessary to the operation of the complex institution or enterprise.
The problem with politicization is that it is 1) intrinsically inauthentic and 2) it substitutes the ideologically pure for the competent. Rigid, top-down hierarchies (including not just Communist regimes but corporations and institutions) demand expressions of fealty (the equivalent of loyalty oaths) and compliance to ideological demands (check the right boxes of party indoctrination, “self-criticism,” “struggle sessions,” etc.).
The correct verbiage and ideological enthusiasm become the basis of advancement rather than accountability to standards of competence. The competent are thus replaced with the politically savvy. Since competence is no longer being selected for, it’s replaced by what is being selected for, political compliance.
It doesn’t matter what flavor of ideological purity holds sway–conservative, progressive, communist or religious–all fatally erode competence by selecting for ideological compliance. Everyone knows the enthusiasm is inauthentic and only for show, but artifice and inauthenticity are perfectly adequate for the politicization taskmasters.
4. The competent must cover for the incompetent. As the competent tire of the artifice and make-work and quit, the remaining competent must work harder to keep everything glued together. Their commitment to high standards and accountability are their undoing, as the slack-masters and incompetent either don’t care (“I’m just here to qualify for my pension”) or they’ve mastered the processes of masking their incompetence, often by blaming the competent or the innocent for their own failings.
This additional workload crushes the remaining competent who then burn out and quit, go on disability or opt out, changing their lifestyle to get by on far less income, work, responsibility and far less exposure to the toxic work environments created by depersonalization, politicization and the elevation of the incompetent.
5. As the competent leadership leaves, the incompetent takes the reins, blind to their own incompetence. It all looked so easy when the competent were at the helm, but reality is a cruel taskmaster, and all the excuses that worked as an underling wear thin once the incompetent are in leadership roles.
By this terminal stage, the competent have been driven out, quit or burned out. There’s only slack-masters and incompetent left, and the toxic work environment has been institutionalized, so no competent individual will even bother applying, much less take a job doomed to burnout and failure.
This is why systems are breaking down before our eyes and why the breakdowns will spread with alarming rapidity due the tightly bound structure of complex systems.
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A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).
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