Rule by Metric


In the grand scheme of things, there is not the slightest doubt that humanity can survive. The peril of the planet and the challenges of leaving it are not beyond our husbandry. But it will not be the market that saves us – it will be ourselves.

To this end, there is a heartening article in today's Sunday Times: Why You Hate Work. The authors have done surveys which, in a nutshell, find that employees (and management, too) are most productive when their needs are met in the workplace. What needs are these? The physical need of rest and renewal. Feeling valued and cared for. Being allowed to focus on the task, and thereby finding purpose and meaning in work. Feeling that their work has made a difference, however small. Surprised?

We are not machines. Our output is not proportional to time spent on the job. Our capacity for creation is huge and unknown, but it is delicate and must be given room to flower.

Our Metrics

Where have we gone astray? It's the metrics, stupid.

By worshipping the market we come to the conclusion that the purpose of enterprise is the bottom line. Managers define productivity as income or profit per employee, or worse, as hours worked per dollar of wages. It is any wonder that the phrase the working poor has made it into our modern vocabulary?

We are using hours and money to measure the value of work. Then we use the market to make our existential decisions for us.

This is not because we are evil. We are human and in trying to grasp our complicated selves we seize what is doable and ready to hand. And as to the larger decisions, we are overwhelmed and beg to be excused. For how often, in our daily lives, are we visited with silence, peace, and courage? It takes all of these to acknowledge the existential decisions that face humanity. Our humanity. Us.

Money is useful. Only by having some – in today's society, at least – can we make a space for thought. Money is a tool, a medium of exchange, and exchange is essential.

Money is also an abstraction, a practical means of evaluating both things and ourselves. But the value of things is debatable (that's why we need money or barter in the first place) and we ourselves are beyond value. And when we cede to the market we are putting our trust in an abstraction of an abstraction, a tool without form.

What Metric?

Let's go back to what is really essential: exchange.

Farmers a century ago did much of their work alone, but building a barn required co-operation. (That's where the phrase barn raising comes from). If I help my neighbour, he will help me in the really big jobs I can't do alone.

Today we have before us a really big job: the survival of humanity. No amount of management or regulation can achieve this. Nor can capital, in the way we think of it. Financial capital will of course be necessary, more than ever before, and the financial world would do well to refocus on its primary purpose. But the other capital – human capital – is more important by far.

Each of us, however poor or simple, has a light within. How can these small flames be kept burning? How can they be nurtured and combined to illuminate and power a larger purpose?

Not by demand. Not by fear. As in all things human, we give ourselves willingly when we feel valued – in fact we give willingly that which did not exist before we felt valued. It is how we treat each other that determines whether our gifts will flower or come to naught.

So it is with work. Our survival depends on each of us doing his best work. What metric will we use to value that?