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.

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, or something else equally aspirational. 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 considered noble. For many people, feeling noble is a much more powerful motivator than money. (Some humans don’t feel this way, but ethicalstartup.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 have decisionmakers. More often than we like to admit, decisions are made based on what will make the decision-maker feel good. The less this is aligned with desirable outcomes, the more dysfunctional an institution will be. (So dysfunction is also a matter of perspective. Desirable for who?)

Communist states, past and present, are the ultimate example of institutionalized dysfunction. 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 of the Soviet state. The accident was avoidable. 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 clearly in 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 counter-argument is 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 answering the real question. Was the sacrifice really necessary, or could it have been avoided somehow?

I am not saying that we should all go off and become 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 organizational hubris. There are many institutions which value people so little that they would rather a person be dead than contribute their full human 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.

Dysfunction is enabled by sacrifice.

A continuous stream of sacrifice is what allows dysfunctional systems to continue. An important trait of market democracy is that contracts should not be enforced by a literal gun to your head. So when it comes to sacrifice, we always have a choice. If something has gone wrong and it can only be fixed via your pain, ask why. (No robust system should be set up in such a way).

Your time and your life are the most valuable things you have. We need to eat, drink, feel connected to others, and have a safe place to live. Every other kind of “need” is a construct. When a institution demands sacrifice, ask why, and ask if there is another way. Is the reason really good enough?