A company is not a family; you have an actual family*.

Many companies like to brand themselves as “like a family” for their employees.

This is not true. A company’s goal is to make money.

Of course, it is possible that they actually believe their claim. Humans have aspirational beliefs all the time. We often judge ourselves to be smarter, kinder, and more attractive than we really are. A company is just a group of people, so it is understandable that they have aspirational beliefs too.

But why do so many companies feel the need to tell this specific untruth? After all, they could just as well try to convince you that everyone in the company is exceptionally attractive. There are many untruths to choose from. Why is this one so common?

I think it’s common because family demands sacrifice, and sacrifice for family is held up as noble by our culture. For many people, feeling noble is a much more powerful motivator than money. (Some humans don’t feel this way, but benevolentstartup.io isn’t trying to hire those people.)

* Family owned businesses excepted, of course.

Most institutions are at least a little bit dysfunctional.

Companies are institutions, and institutions are a collection of contracts between people. These contracts allow people to make decisions that will affect many others. Decisions are often driven by what will make the decision-maker feel good. The less this is aligned with desirable outcomes, the more dysfunctional an institution becomes. (Thus dysfunction is also a matter of perspective. Desirable for who?)

Communist states, past and present, are the ultimate example of institutionalized dysfunction. They take labour, organize it to achieve a supposed outcome (the betterment of its citizens), and utterly fail to do so for the majority. It seems in many cases the citizens would have been better off running individual subsistence farms and not participating in the state at all.

Think about every liquidator in the USSR who risked their health to clean up the Chernobyl disaster. They certainly sacrificed for the Soviet people. But that sacrifice was only made necessary by the hubris and incompetence of the Soviet state. The accident was not inevitable. Many people foresaw it, but they were not listened to.

It does no good to be angry about natural disasters. But it may do good to be angry about avoidable dysfunction. If it doesn’t need to be so bad, we should be skeptical of any system of organization that makes it so.

Hold institutional contracts to the same standard that you hold your personal contracts.

I recently had a phone call with a friend who was feeling stressed about work to the point of crying in front of her computer. I have done this as well, and I do not wish to do so again.

When I hear someone say that they “need” to do something for work, I am skeptical. I am even more skeptical when that person is in an obvious state of emotional distress, because it is hard to see how the company could extract good work from someone in such a state.

Many people feel like they need to sit in traffic for hours each day, miss events with family and loved ones, or put up with pointless and unengaging work. Often when you question these beliefs, people resort to name-calling - i.e. you are a privileged snowflake with no work ethic. When the argument becomes emotional shame instead of logic, pay attention. It usually means that you’ve brushed up against some deeply buried thing. It’s a cop-out from discussing the real question, which is: “Could we have organized in such a way as to avoid this bad outcome”?

I am not saying that we should all go off and be roving economic units of one. Relationships give life meaning because they allow us to experience and accomplish more than we can alone.

But we are clearly capable of hubris in organization. There are many institutions which value human well-being and brainpower so little that it would rather a person be dead than contribute their ability. (Think suicide bombings, the DPRK, the USSR). This is very disturbing.

Most Western institutions are far from this extreme, but the underlying mechanisms which enable dysfunction are the same. I am always surprised at the extent to which dignified people, who would never put up with dishonesty or poor commitment in a personal relationship, are willing to stay in work contracts that claim to provide a culture or a set of opportunities that repeatedly fail to materialize.

Every relationship is a contract. I am in a contract with my employer, my partner, my family, and my government. Some of these terms just aren’t written on paper.

Every contract you engage in should be one that makes all participants long-run better off. There is no good reason to engage in a contract otherwise. Question demands for sacrifice.