Exit, Voice, Loyalty and Principle
post # 16 — February 11, 2006 — a Careers post
I keep meeting (and getting emails from) people asking whether or not I would advise them to stay with firms that operate on principles contrary to those they believe in. I have written and spoken about this before, but I’ll elaborate here because I plan to make a full length article of this one day. As always, I eagerly solicit reactions.
Albert O. Hirschman wrote a very famous book called Exit Voice and Loyalty, (Harvard University Press, 1970) basically saying that an individual has three choices – quit, speak out, or go along.
I can’t say what’s right for everyone, because I don’t know how much people are prepared to sacrifice and how hard they are prepared to work for what they want. If I don’t think the organization I am in acts on principles I believe in, I’ll vote for exit every time, because speaking out will get you killed and loyalty to something you view with distaste is not something anyone should be prepared to do with their life.
Would I ever do it? Sure, if staying with the terrible environment will actually help me get somewhere that I can’t get to any other way, I’ll do my time. (Remember, I spent three years getting a doctorate. I know what serving an apprenticeship and a rite of passage is like!) But it better be for a finite amount of time with a clear, certain light at the end of the tunnel.
If your short term is crucial to you, you have to just suck it up and take it. You’re never going to change an individual who’s your boss, let alone a firm culture. So, if you want the rewards they offer (and they can be pretty tempting) then stop complaining about the choice you made, and live out your devil’s contract.
Or, you can say “I don’t care what it costs me in short term inconvenience, but I’m out of here. I’m fed up participating in conversations with my peers about how miserable we all are and trying to figure out much cash in the bank is enough to stop putting up with what we put up with.”
Life’s too short, and last time I checked, the common view was that we have only one life. By my arithmetic we tend to be awake for about 17 hours a day or 119 hours per week, and most professionals are working 60 hours a week, plus or minus. So, we’re spending fully one half of the one life we are likely to have at work. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me that’s a terrifying statistic if my work doesn’t have meaning and I have to spend it with unprincipled people who’ll do almost anything for money.
Am I going to spend that in an environment where I don’t respect the people I work with and for, where they treat me and others in inappropriate ways, where they are so short-term driven that they compromise every one of their own declared strategies, policies and standards whenever its convenient and expedient to do so?
Ah, but the question remains, will I live in such an environment if they paid me? What if they paid me a lot! What if they paid me an obscene amount of money? All these questions add up to is: “Do I want to join in and compromise what I believe in for the money. Am *I* as much an unprincipled person, driven by cash, as they are?
Yes you can argue that you have more excuses. If you’re young, you can say – I have a student loan; I haven’t had the chance to save anything yet. Won’t you forgive me if I buckle under and do it for the cash? Or if you’re mid-career, you can say – But I’ve got a family depending on me, kids in school and a mortgage. Won’t you forgive me if I take the expedient path?
Well, of course, you absolutely don’t need anyone’s forgiveness. The only question is: Are you prepared to forgive yourself if the bribe is big enough? Many say “YES!” and they have the right to make that choice. But they don’t have the right to complain.
Obviously, the choice that every one of us faces, young or old, is the same one the leaders of the firm face. Will you compromise your standards for money? Will you join the enemy, and become what you claim to despise?
There is a glimpse of a fourth path that Hirschman didn’t identify. I’ll call it the “Stick to Principles” alternative. What I keep trying to convey with my writings is that I am not (primarily) making moral points. I’m trying to report business lessons that end up sounding like moral points.
For example, you’ll actually get more of what you want from other people (colleagues, clients, subordinates and even superiors) if you take the time to relate to and understand them as a person, not just someone in a role.
Another example is that you actually do make more money and advance your career more quickly if you put quality before volume, and refuse to take on work that you can’t do to the highest standards.
A third example is that you will make more money if you take some time away from today’s production to ensure that you are doing the things necessary to make tomorrow better (learning, training, supervision, R&D, listening to your audience, etc.)
These are all career and business lessons, not points of principle, although I must rush to report that they get implemented more thoroughly (and hence produce results more quickly) by people who treat them as points of principle. (There’s the paradox of professionalism again.)
So, the fourth alternative is: Do what you know to be the right way to do things in your work life, and there’s an incredibly good chance that you’ll actually get more cooperation out of the world and actually produce more, even in the short run, that will keep your overlords happy.
Give your bosses what they demand, but do it your way. Because life’s too short. You only go around once. And they say being a prostitute is no fun.