Annual reviews and other Soviet business practices

As the end of 2016 is quickly approaching, it is time to reflect on the past year. For people working in large bureaucratic organizations like banks and government, this means filling out performance evaluations. Organizations collect these records of their employees’ professional histories. Managers can use old reviews to motivate (non) promotions of their subordinates.

One intriguing aspect is the fact that employees are expected to write negative things about themselves. In management speak this is called “opportunities for growth” or some other bullshit term. But basically the writers have to incriminate themselves. The self-evaluation provides the proverbial rope for somebody to hang them with.

This reminded me about something I read in a book1 by historian Orlando Figes on the Soviet Union. Members of the Communist Party had to write an autobiography which was regularly updated. The higher-ups in the hierarchy could use these documents to control their underlings and their rivals.

The more you think about it, the more parallels there are between modern business life and Soviet society.

It is well known that corporations are not democracies nor markets. But this post focusses on the cultural similarities that caught my attention.

Not a month goes by or a lobby group argues that we (i.e. companies) need more STEM graduates. Because “Economic growth depends on engineers developing new technology”. The educational system of the USSR was also obsessed with science and technology.

Rarely do you read corporate executives begging for an increased output of literature majors, lawyers or historians. Yet the Free West – where state planners didn’t massively push students towards STEM fields – was much more prosperous when the Soviet Empire crumbled. It is almost as if STEM shortages are mostly made up to keep wages down. Hmmm…

What I found fascinating2 about the book The Whisperers was how mentally attached people were to the Party and its ideology. Even in the Gulag camps, victims still worshipped Stalin. Although the system was killing them, a number of inmates thought that an unfortunate mistake had been made. Or that they deserved to be punished for crimes they weren’t aware of.

But is our society so different? Many employees prioritize their job to their health and their personal life. Some individuals work until they suffer from burn-out. Work related stress can end in suicide. The Japanese famously have a word for working yourself to death.3

Once you start digging, the resemblances between the modern corporate world and the USSR are startling. Women are stimulated to choose STEM careers. Corporate slogans cover office walls like political propaganda. And businesses cannot be just about making money, they have to contribute to a better future for society. Their mission statements talk about stronger communities or improving the environment.

Really makes you think, doesn’t it…

I hope that reviewing your professional 2016 also brings some time to reflect on what is really important in life!

  1. I don’t remember which one, most likely in A People’s Tragedy or The Whisperers
  2. Small rant: fascinating but not inconceivable. I hate it when people say “we cannot imagine …”. Yes we can, dummy. Read some history.
  3. By the way, I’m not blaming businesses for any of this. These behaviors seem to be caused by a lack of introspection. Maybe a philosophy course isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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