Leavitt: How dumb does the boss think you are?

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

Several heartwarming stories written by CEOs have popped up recently, describing how much they respect their janitors and how their firms’ success is linked to their open-mindedness.

These coincidentally published essays seem to have been met by almost universal acclaim by their intended audiences: other CEOs and those aspiring to be CEOs.

They have not been acclaimed by actual janitors.

That is partly because janitors don’t usually read management magazines and LinkedIn.

It’s also because the stories are what gamblers call a “tell.” The articles unwittingly reveal why the self-congratulating authors and their middle-management admirers can’t keep good employees, and why they’re guiding their organizations toward the Dumpster.

And they might be taking the nation’s economy with them.

In all of the versions of this story I’ve seen, the respect for the maintenance people consists entirely of chatting with the individuals, to the point, in one case, of asking an opinion on choosing a marketing scheme. The employee in question was admired for picking one immediately, and his choice was implemented.

In another story, a junior executive was let go because he didn’t know the name of the lady who cleaned his office.

It’s absolutely true that recognition of employees, at least to the point of knowing who they are, is important to any commercial endeavor. But none of the stories included a sentence like this one: “I made sure his working conditions were appropriate, and that he was earning a living wage.”

The missing sentence is immediately apparent to the janitors of the world, and it’s not just because they think it would be nice to be paid fairly.

The truth is that not being paid enough changes everything for the person cashing that little check. And for his or her employer, too.

That’s partly explained in a new edition of the fine National Public Radio program “The Hidden Brain,” hosted by Shankar Vedantam, one of the smartest Americans on two feet.

He discussed the psychology of scarcity with two other smart guys, Eldar Shafir, a psychology professor at Princeton, and Sendhil Mullainathan, a long-time Harvard economics professor, now at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. They had a theory that people who don’t have enough money were like people who don’t have enough food: that’s all they can think about.

They were already pretty sure about the food end, because of a famous 1944 University of Minnesota study. Researchers then wanted to know how to bring people back from the brink of starvation, because they expected a few million of those in a year or two.

“They launched a year-long experiment (using) conscientious objectors who still wanted to serve their country,” Vedantam said. “The experiment: the volunteers had to go on a starvation diet.”

The study was designed to learn about nutrition under stress, but many people have been more interested in another result.

Shafir said that though most of the 36 participants were taking college courses, they never talked about them.

“They basically were very hungry, couldn’t stop thinking about eating … you’d think, given that they cannot eat, they’d rather be distracted with other things,” he said.

“I mean, they planned to open restaurants, to become restaurateurs. They memorized recipes. They compared food prices of different newspapers.”

Shafir and Mullainathan theorized that scarcity of anything vital, like food, is an important evolutionary trigger.

“And then this thing starts going off in the head saying, do you realize we’re hungry?” Mullainathan said. “Have I mentioned we’re hungry? We’re hungry. And it just keeps calling out to you.”

The partners were familiar with the behavior of some poor people who become consumed with financial juggling. When they get a little money, the partners noticed, they often spend it stocking up on the things they’ve been obsessively worrying about, like toilet paper and baby food, neglecting things they’ll need in a week or two.

The researchers guessed that poor people are smarter than their behavior indicated. They proposed that if the pressure was reduced, they’d stop obsessing, and plan ahead better. They found a group to study in India: sugar cane farmers who are paid only once a year, after their harvest.

“Sendhil and Eldar tested the farmers on their long-term thinking, when they had no money and when they had plenty of money,” Vedantam said.

“We found a huge difference. So we found that post-harvest, when they’re well-off, they have much more impulse control,” Mullainathan said.

“This matched other research that shows, for example, that farmers who are well-off tend to weed their fields more regularly than farmers who are poor,” Vedantam added. “Farmers who were poor mostly focused on how to make it to next week, short-term thinking. To be clear, it’s not that poor people focus on immediate needs because that’s all they want to think about. It’s all they can think about.

“Scarcity captures the mind, like it did with those starving men in Minnesota. In fact, scarcity can actually lower how you perform on an IQ test.”

So what does that have to do with janitors? I can tell you first hand, because I used to be a janitor. It was an easy job, but I tended to get distracted.

I made typical non-union janitor pay, and much of my time, at home and work, was taken up with worrying over covering the rent, and which bill to pay first.

Sometimes, I’d come home to my little apartment, and the lights had been turned off.

At one point in my poverty cycle, I moved into my parents’ basement for a few months. I put away a little money, rested my mind, and came up with an idea for a business. It kept me alive and relatively pleased with life for a long time.

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time since 1888, there are more young adults 18 to 34 — 32.1 percent — living with mom and dad than in any other living situation.

Why are so many in the basement? I know that’s not fun.

Some of them are college debt-poor. That’ll make a lot of noise in your head, I bet.

But they’ve got other voices in there.

“When I took my job, they never said I’d get any raises beyond cost of living, and I’m not even getting that, some years.

“I’ve got no pension, and I’m saving barely anything for retirement.”

“I’m getting health insurance, but I’m still spending thousands on health costs every year. And I haven’t even been sick.”

Those voices may have put many millennials on the hunt for a better deal. A 2018 Deloitte survey found that 43 percent of them expect to leave their jobs within a couple of years.

So CEOs rewarding their employees as if they don’t care if they stay are being rewarded with a work force with very weak institutional memory.

Maybe artificial intelligence will save them, if they can find someone still around who knows enough to talk sense to their computers.

But we can’t depend on technology alone.

When I was a kid, on my way to work on the el, the train stopped because, up ahead, one of the rails seemed to be on fire.

A few minutes passed, and a lone CTA employee carried a sledgehammer up the stairs. He strolled down the platform, let himself down to the tracks, and picked his way over the ties to where the fire was.

He swung the hammer at the base of the third rail until one of the insulators went flying, the flames with it. The people on the train cheered.

“Thank you,” a conductor said over the loudspeaker.

“Don’t thank me,” the man said. “Pay me.”

And they did.

What a concept.

I know a man, now retired, who was working for the CTA then. He used to take at least two nice vacations a year, and still saved enough money to buy, and sell, several apartment buildings, building up a nice nest egg for his family.

I know lots of other guys who built similar lives in private industry.

I don’t know many people under 50 who expect that kind of retirement.

But that doesn’t matter if their CEOs know their first names.