Why is most work advice online so terrible?
March 15, 2018 4:58 PM   Subscribe

There seems to be a cognitive dissonance between the advice offered for all other matters but work, where the available advice is as enlightened as that of a bad marriage from the 50s.

I am baffled by the cognitive dissonance of the online advice sphere when it comes to private matters as opposed to work.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the advice for these aspects will naturally vary greatly, for self evident reasons, however, I would think that the foundations for both should be based on the zeitgeist of how an individual should be handling themselves in the world.

On one hand, advice on personal matters speaks unequivocally of self empowerment, self respect, awareness of behaviors that may be abusive and how to avoid them and a general non-apologetic stance for taking care of one's self and setting boundaries when needed. So far so good, that is grand advice.

At the same time however, almost all advice on professional matters, be it online or in person, is always encouraging the tolerance of behaviors that are borderline, if not fully, abusive. I see it online, I see it in peers and coworkers, where any behavior seen as "rocking the boat" is as discouraged as tuberculosis.

For example, if someone were to ask for advice because their spouse is verbally mean, manipulative and takes advantage of them while deriding them for not anticipating their needs, most sane advisors would tell the person to get out of the toxic environment. Yet almost every piece of advice I've read, offered to people expressing the same problem but with an employer, recommends servility, compliance and the need for the individual to up their efforts to make happy a boss that couldn't care less to replace them in a heartbeat.

Yes, of course, work pays your bills and all that , understandable that more compromises will be tolerated but what is the purpose of this conflicting message, where an individual is expected to be so fundamentally different in these two spheres?

Your boss dumps all his work on you? Do it twice as well and thrice as fast so he can take the credit and higher pay, while you can get brownie points and more hours of work. Is your boss manipulative, abusive and incompetent? Engage in a complex emotional labor where you try to regulate and manage their sociopathic behavior so it's not uncomfortable for them.

It seems like the message of the mainstream professional advice is to remind the employee how powerless they are in the face of their employer . HR is not your friend, you can be fired for any reason with no recourse, so act accordingly, and if you do quit, don't you dare leave with anything but a glorious review and don't ever speak ill of your former boss, in case your future one sees a hint of backbone and doesn't hire you.

I also understand that the advice offered is pragmatic and it can't border on naive, wishful thinking but it seems like this is the perfect recipe to completely insulate employers from any accountability, by turning the workforce into obedient infants. I have read pieces from publications considered to be pinnacles of journalism, offering professional advice that in any other situation would be considered victim blaming.

This cannot be benenficial for anyone but the employee, so why does everyone not only fall for it but keep replicating and promoting the same tenets that seem to have been taken straight out of a libertarian's wet dream? Are there any sources you recommend, either online or in print, with professional advice and mentorship that doesn't rely on the annihilation of integrity and self respect for professional success?
posted by ariadne_88 to Work & Money (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I have often thought that Ask A Manager is right up there with Captain Awkward in terms of advocating having the difficult conversations, setting boundaries, and not being so goddamn passive-aggressive all the time.

Even she will often give the caveat that she understands it's not always feasible for people to just quit a job without somewhere else to go, and that's basically the heart of the problem. Especially in the US, the power relationship is nearly 100% in favor of the company, so it's hard to enforce your own boundaries when you have zero leverage.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:02 PM on March 15, 2018 [53 favorites]

I think that's the core of it - you've got the causality backwards. The advice isn't trying to create servile employees, but, especially in a lot of states, employment already is "a libertarian's wet dream" - this pushes advice to be conciliatory, because between jobs being hard to find and easy to lose, the advice to go along to get along is much more universally applicable.

Seconding the Ask A Manager recommendation, though.
posted by sagc at 5:11 PM on March 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

Here's a chart of the US unemployment rate.

With 10% unemployment the advice is given on the basis that you want to keep your job. As unemployment approaches 4% I think it's possible that people might start giving different advice on the basis that workers are no longer quite as disposable as before.

What will happen when the U.S. unemployment rate falls below 4 percent, which is expected to occur by this summer?
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 PM on March 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

The difference is jobs are transactional. You get money for doing tasks, and the company gets nothing in return for you being there except the completion of your tasks. In most relationships, no money is exchanged and the value is from the manner of treatment, like any other personal relationship or a pet. A better comparison would be a parent child relationship and an employee employee relationship because parents provide food, shelter etc in addition to the personal relationship.
posted by thesockpuppet at 5:32 PM on March 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's because you're reliant on them for an income, and an annoying situation, like having a micromanaging boss, can quickly turn into a life threatening one, like living out of your car in a freezing winter, should you choose to rock the boat.
posted by Jubey at 5:43 PM on March 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

It's not just income -- most workers in the US are reliant on their employers for health insurance coverage, and medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy here.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:59 PM on March 15, 2018 [37 favorites]

From the outside, it seems to me that benefits such as health care are very important in the US. As opposed to an added bonus, health insurance is a necessity which if I were in the US would make me hesitant about changing jobs.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 6:00 PM on March 15, 2018

Ask A Manager is a daily must-read for me, and Liz Ryan and J.T. O'Donnell also provide consistently positive, self-affirming advice to job seekers and disillusioned employees.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:23 PM on March 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

It might be an interesting exercise to read the questions and answers from a perspective of 2009, with unemployment at 10%, layoffs as common, medical bankruptcies as a real danger of existence, and foreclosure coming right down your street.

Or 2002. Or 1999. Or 1987. Actually I wonder if people asked those types of questions then, as much of at all.

Like the nomad said, it's all about power, and money, which is somewhat hard to live without in the end.
posted by Dashy at 6:30 PM on March 15, 2018

The answer is capitalism. If all employers were democratically run, well, we’d have different problems, but they wouldn’t be this problem.
posted by Automocar at 7:58 PM on March 15, 2018 [10 favorites]

My home just went through 9 months of unemployment. If you go 9 months without dating, that's honestly fine and maybe even good. To go 9 months without work really impacts things like food, shelter, healthcare, continuing to live.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 8:05 PM on March 15, 2018 [15 favorites]

Romantic relationships, at least in cultural contexts where women's empowerment is a thing, are supposed to be equal. Work relationships are hierarchical. They're just different things. Even a healthy workplace dynamic is most likely going to have someone telling you what to do and evaluating your performance in ways that would be inappropriate in a romantic relationship.
posted by lazuli at 8:41 PM on March 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

My spouse and I have spent 23+ years building a relationship and intertwining our interests and fortunes. If we split up, it would be like pulling apart two vines that have been growing together for years: even if the roots survived, there would be massive trauma to both.

I am one of approximately 120,000 people employed by my organization, one of roughly a thousand in our local branch, and one of maybe 40 in my department. If they fired me tomorrow, I (and my spouse) would be in seriously bad shape. My manager would be briefly inconvenienced, some of my department members would feel sad, and my organization as a whole wouldn't notice at all.

The stakes and the relative leverage are very different.
posted by Lexica at 8:43 PM on March 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

Okay, I basically agree with you that a not insignificant portion of online business advice feels retrograde, and I don't know why either. But to add one piece to the puzzle, I do sometimes read questions and think "this sounds like it was written by that one intern" and appreciate responses that basically suggest that they focus on continuing to learn the ropes.

Sometimes new employees don't know what they don't know or worse, are sure that they have some ultra special insight into everything and everyone else's jobs. Sometimes questioners seem a bit new to the working world and to have unreasonable expectations. Are they still in the phase when they expect authority figures to be perfect? Relating to an employer is different from relating to a parent or being a student in a class, and sometimes I can't tell if the questioner has reached that stage of maturity when they realize that employers are just (overworked) people too, and that part of their job is to tolerate imperfections and fill in the gaps.

So, I'm not always sure that the askers are reliable narrators. Sometimes I wonder if the questioner is right, or if they have that combination of being both ignorant and entitled that leads to easily feeling aggrieved. While both employer and employee (obviously) have equal worth as human beings, this isn't a situation where both people's perspectives are equally valid. The supervisor often does have experience and knowledge and context that an employee doesn't. In response to a question about a boss who makes "arbitrary" requests, or who is "needlessly picky" or "unfair," it might be appropriate to advise a fairly new employee to watch and learn and try to understand where the boss is coming from. In response to questions that are harshly critical of what might be a foible or symptom of overwork ("takes forever to respond to my emails"), it might be appropriate to suggest the employee consider how to be helpful or ask if other communication methods would work better.

I don't want to defend the most retrograde advice out there, (nor bad management), but there is a subset of advice I see that falls into this category, where the asker says one thing but reveals a level of inexperience that suggests that maybe they have unreasonable expectations or don't yet see the whole picture and how they fit into it.
posted by salvia at 9:18 PM on March 15, 2018 [15 favorites]

why does everyone not only fall for it but keep replicating and promoting the same tenets that seem to have been taken straight out of a libertarian's wet dream?

Workplaces that resemble democracies in any meaningful way are vanishingly rare. Almost every workplace is structured as an autocracy, and thriving or even surviving inside an autocracy calls for interpersonal behaviours that would be utterly inappropriate in an environment featuring greater personal freedom.

So people keep "falling for it" because in the overwhelming majority of cases, "it" is in fact completely appropriate advice.

As to why a putatively free society tolerates near-universal autocracy in its workplaces: this is largely due to successful and ongoing propagandization of an implicit belief that there is no alternative.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 PM on March 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Because a lot of us cannot get other jobs and leave. I will literally put up with anything (and have) because the options are to put up with this or end up homeless very quickly.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:47 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, demand for quality jobs far exceeds supply (full-time, salaried, benefits, pension, plus other factors like desirable location [not only re cost of living but re personal factors like closeness to friends and family, etc], vs part-time or contract, low-paid work in less useful places are more available); labour laws have been eroded and are hard to enforce anyway, especially with trade agreements opening up foreign labour and increasing automation; the social safety net isn’t great enough on its own to risk having to use it unless absolutely necessary; social stigma attached to unemployment, etc. Capitalism.

Re why does personal advice (focusing on empowerment, the value of the individual, etc) conflict with advice supporting economic (and actual) survival, it’s because the ideology of individualism, free will, self-determination, etc is super prevalent wherever capitalism is, because it’s justifying that system (in the US that justification has roots in prosperity theology), it suppresses recognition of the impact of class, a recognition that might lead to resistance (under certain conditions - once people had more to lose in the short and mid term by sticking with it vs trying something new and possibly destructive of a social order (because most people favour order and predictability over disruption). The ideology in some way provides compensation for the psychic injuries sustained at work (“no you’re actually not a peon prone to the whim of actual and corporate psychopaths, you are autonomous, self determining, valuable”, etc) because embracing the alternative is too painful for people who haven’t grown up in more fatalistic cultures. Some people just ignore the cognitive dissonance by deepening their commitment to the ideology, some compartmentalize to get by, many do feel it and suffer from anxiety, depression, addiction, escape.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:22 AM on March 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

In personal relationships, you know how people say you only really know someone's core values when you've seen them in times of stress or crisis? For example: say your partner is encountering a high level of stress (being cheated, or unfairly penalized, or it could even be you, doing something that hurt them) - do they act grumpy or snap at you? How well are they able to regulate their emotions? Also - how you can tell someone's true character by observing how they treat the most disadvantaged people they meet, when there's nothing in it for them.

Emotional resilience is basically "faking" this at work. It's not condoning the poor behavior: it's demonstrating that you have core values that you will not compromise on. For example, an accountant who is honest 99% of the time but then commits fraud to steal money - that's no good. If someone can encounter an unexpectedly toxic situation (being blamed for something that was not their fault, being yelled at, or having to pick up the slack someone left them) and still demonstrate their core qualities - being pleasant, even keeled, supportive, solutions focused rather than blame focused, puts the business priorities first - without wavering - that's how you know who they are, and that they are reliable and can be depended on in times of crisis. THOSE are the people you want to promote. So, you know, maybe you're not "really" such a person, but faking it and being it pretty much adds up to the same thing.

Perspective from a manager here...

As mentioned above, work is an autocracy. My view is that my employer is paying me for my time: if they wants me to do work below my capability, that's fine, I will have more energy for other pursuits like self directed learning either in or out of work. If they want me to do work above my capability, that's fine too, because you learn by doing, and the company has just given me a vote of confidence. Essentially, I'm paid X amount per hour, I'll do any work they give me, and I'll continue progressing and developing as a person no matter what. If I don't like the work, I'll find someone else who appreciates my talents.

Like a military unit or a production line, individuals are cogs in a larger machine. If a soldier in an infantry unit or a worker on a 1,000 person production line does not follow orders, the entire process would be compromised. Hence the strong emphasis on obedience and compliance.

From a negative point of view, this could be seen as reducing humans to mindless automatons. From a positive point of view, this could be seen as the triumph of cooperative behavior - humans achieve so much more when they work together, like a colony of bees or ants. Throw a single person alone into the Sahara desert, and there's not much of a civilization they would make, no matter how brilliantly smart or inspired they were.

Of course, you shouldn't just take it from me: there is a level of selection bias, people who do well in the corporate system will of course write glowing reviews of it, while people who burn out and hate it, will leave and write long rants about how toxic the culture is.

Companies develop cultures, just like societies. (kind of topical, given the recent post about the Culture series). Culture is functional - different cultures foster different behaviors and outcomes. So the theory goes, companies with successful cultures will expand and grow and last, and other companies will try to copy the culture of another company if theirs is failing. For example, Ford hired Alan Mulally from Boeing specifically so he could instill the Boeing culture at Ford, from the top down.

From an evolutionary perspective, some cultures retain (arguably) toxic aspects because they help them achieve their goals, so it's arguable whether those traits are positive or negative. It's the same in biology: relative to other mammals, humans have large heads, because intelligence is a useful trait. But it makes childbirth difficult, which raises birth mortality relative to other mammals. Overall, the trade-off is positive.
posted by xdvesper at 1:23 AM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

I just want to point out that this kind of abusive & hierarchical workplace bullshit - and therefore the need to conform to it - does not arise from inevitable & impersonal forces of nature. Look at countries around the world - many of them have developed employment law that regulates this kind of thing, to more or less effective levels. The rampant at-will crap that a lot of you are describing arose out of a set of specific and deliberate choices that were made against the background of a given culture.

I'm not going to claim that any other country has this all perfect, but I'm happy to live under a jurisdiction that curtails the worst of these excesses - such that I can approach my workplace relationships with the intention that there should be some kind of quid pro quo other than the nakedly transactional.

To recommend sources of good advice - I'd second Liz Ryan.
posted by rd45 at 3:38 AM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

this kind of abusive & hierarchical workplace bullshit - and therefore the need to conform to it - does not arise from inevitable & impersonal forces of nature. Look at countries around the world - many of them have developed employment law that regulates this kind of thing, to more or less effective levels.

And if you look more closely, you will find that countries that have developed more humane employment law than applies in the US have not done so out of the goodness of their governments' hearts, but have instead been firmly steered in that direction by organized labour.

One of the main reasons why the US is such a miserable place to be employed for so many people is that since greed became good in the Eighties there has been a relentlessly sustained campaign of union-busting and anti-union propaganidizing by the moneyed classes and their media megaphones, to the point where union membership is now generally viewed as something dubious and a bit subversive; the autocrats now hold almost all the cards.
posted by flabdablet at 5:47 AM on March 16, 2018 [12 favorites]

I don't have an answer but I do think this is a very good question -- also, how do we expect people to be models of self-empowerment in their private lives when they're supposed to spend 8 hours a day in absolute servility? It's a bizarre concept.
posted by kingdead at 6:23 AM on March 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Nthing that the lack of adequate social safety nets are a very big component of this problem. Specifically, universal healthcare coverage and basic income would be the social safety net equivalent of "eff you" money. Without those, we either have to save and invest enough to create an adequate emergency fund for ourselves (hard to do when pay is low and costs are high) and/or make sure that our skills are such that they are marketable and varied enough for us to quickly find another job. The latter often requires costly retraining/education that people don't have the money for. Also, marketability isn't as useful in a high unemployment environment.
posted by jazzbaby at 7:11 AM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Large corporations spend money and time trying to figure out the best way to get employees to work together and be productive. This includes on-site training in communication styles, time management, and so on.

So the people creating material in those areas -- which either is the same as or very close to what you're asking about -- tend to write from the perspective of a corporation or manager that is trying to get employees to work together in a more constructive, productive way. There's a lot less money in writing materials on how to deal with others at work from a non-management perspective.
posted by mikeh at 8:36 AM on March 16, 2018

A couple of things:

First, a lot of personal advice is given by people who are either professionally trained to be objective (such as therapists), or have some exposure to people who have had such training. There's a critical mass of trained advice-givers from this perspective who, in the language of business, dominate the space. In the professional advice space, the opposite is true. Almost all are trained as HR people, which by definition sides with the company. Few therapists specialize in this, and those that do generally don't write advice columns. So there's a critical mass of the pro-company perspective. And like anything else, when there's a conventional wisdom that has coalesced, it's difficult to articulate a contradictory viewpoint.

Second, as others have noted, US employment law doesn't really condone standing up for yourself at work. As a result, anyone who takes such advice from a would-be advice-giver will likely find themselves either marginalized or outright fired, and nobody wants to give advice that leads to that.

Third, while personal advice is generally more pro-individual, it can often go too far in that direction. There's a drain that basically says "whatever you want to do is right". This isn't always good advice, and you can easily see why it often doesn't apply to work advice.

Finally, you may be interested in reading some of the responses to this question I'd asked a while ago.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:52 PM on March 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

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