the Bunjee jumpers curve

Some years ago I was attending one of these company training courses that always feel like a waste of time, because the company makes you go there and you learn nothing useful, but at the same time they’re organised well enough and deal with stuff strange enough to be marginally enjoyable. This one was about our ‘personal leadership profile’ and about how we could improve it.

I regularly tell people about this course because it illustrates very well how the companies that organise these courses, never bother to do it right. Our ‘leadership profiles’ were determined by questionnaires we had to fill in about ourselves and five colleagues. Everyone was thus more or less evaluated by five colleagues. I used random numbers for the questionnaires, and nobody noticed.

Understandably, once it became apparent I wasn’t going to be found out, I was paying attention to other things during the course. Like the example the trainer gave us about a dependable employee in the accounting department who did his job well and reliably. A likable, middle aged man. ‘This old guy is overtaken left and right by young Turks’ our trainer concluded.

This remark stuck with me for only one reason: the immediate thought I had as a result of it. It was entirely visual, it didn’t have words in it…

SHIR_BunjeeCurve

…and I understood what it meant.

The graph plots achievement as a function of age. The grey line is the dependable employee, who lasts a lifetime and does his job, delivering a steady performance. The yellow lines are the young Turks. These are the bunjee jumpers that are always out looking for a new challenge and greener grass. Expending sufficient amounts of energy they’re able to perform better than the ‘old guy’, but this comes at a price: either they work themselves into a burnout or they lose their interest and start to falter, nay: look for another challenge!

The old guy can be outperformed by a young Turk, but only for a short time. Unless there’s a large enough supply of young Turks. In that case a successive series of young Turks upholds an achievement-versus-time curve that is higher than what the old guy -or any guy- can sustain on his own (the red line). Companies that are into serial monogamy when it comes to employees, will be able to perform better than companies that are more loyal to the people that work with them, or than single-person companies.

When the working population is large and flexible enough to provide a steady flow of new young Turks, it creates an environment in which systems will start outperforming individuals. This will naturally lead to equivalent views on how people should approach their work. The higher curve will become the standard of achievement, even though from a human viewpoint it is not a realistic expectation. The fact that employees will ‘move to another challenge’ after a while, will become the dominant view on the ‘natural’ behaviour of workers. Not just the way things work change, but also how we think about it.

Only people at the very bottom end who can’t cope with the required amount of energy and commitment will fall out of this system. Society cannot afford to write these people off entirely. It would cause social unrest and shatter the semblance of a humane society. For these people new diseases will be found or old diseases will be redefined, like burnout or depression. They will still matter, but in a way that preserves the ideology instead of questions it.

Others will survive by strategically choosing how to invest their energy and commitment: in their work or in their ‘life’. On a grand scale a shift towards ‘work’ will be inevitable. Only the real bunjee jumpers thrive in this environment: it has developed both their pace and their ideology. Those with a different amount or distribution of energy and commitment will not have an ideological leg to stand on.

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