Never-Ending Performance Measurement & The Pitfalls of Taylorism

This one comes to us from our friend Matthew Wilkins. I first learned about the […]

Mockingbird / 11.1.16

This one comes to us from our friend Matthew Wilkins.

I first learned about the work of Frederick Taylor in a Public Administration course I took as an undergraduate. His book, The Principles of Scientific Management, first published in 1911, signaled a seismic shift in the way companies and organizations thought about workplace efficiency.

I remember being particularly fascinated by Taylor’s project. Think about it: here was a man who took the emerging disciplines of social science and applied them to the real world. For me as a burgeoning political scientist this meant better, more efficient government and therefore better services, better lives, better communities. For a businesses it meant less waste and more productivity, more profit more jobs. This was exciting stuff!


In this past Friday’s weekender column, CJ highlighted a piece in The Atlantic by sociologist Victor Tan Chen entitled “Living in an Extreme Meritocracy Is Exhausting,” that exposes the darker side of Taylorism and the hundred-year human quest for efficiency.

The article’s most consistent critique is of the human cost of our efficiency obsession. How we can quickly turn the quest for something morally ambiguous (if not good) such as efficiency into yet another heaping pile of law and judgment.

The first thing Chen picks up on is the little-l-law nature of the world of efficiency. What started out as a work place specific measure has now been “applied with equal force to all social activities.” The end result being that “today, Taylorism is nearly total.”

With the growth of big data, has also come the growth of what we can be measured on. We’re now evaluated on everything “from how students score on high-stakes tests at school (or, for that matter, how they behave in class), to what consumers purchase and for how much, to how dangerous a risk—or tempting a target—a prospective borrower is.”

The personal cost of this uncompromising form of Taylorism can be seen in the article Chen cites profiling the work culture at Amazon, a culture he characterizes as a Hobbesian affair: “nasty, brutish, and sometimes short.” The measures and critiques being so sweeping, the competition and backstabbing being so prevalent that “employees regularly cried at their desks” under the weight of it all. He also sites the movement at many major corporations from in-person annual reviews to almost constant review via smartphone apps and other technology-assisted forms of assessment such as surveys instantly sent out to customers to rate their interactions with employees.


The bottom line is this: we live in a world where we are constantly being measured, evaluated, and at least on one or more levels are being found wanting. We can live up to many of the little-l-laws of life–be a good student, get to work on time, have the right skills for your job–and yet be found wanting on a metric that simply didn’t matter 50 years ago as our employers constantly evaluate us and give us feedback (read criticism) through electronic means.

What Chen is most critical of is the way in which Taylorism has dehumanized us. He reminds us that the concept of a meritocracy is not a utopian one, but a dystopian one. That meritocracy creates a world where we are reduced to what we can produce, not who we are. A world where there is very little to no room for error in almost every aspect of life. A world that is the ultimate expression of Martin Buber’s “I, it” relationship where we are not living, breathing, image-bearing humans, but instead tools that are valued solely based on our ability to be efficient workers.

And Chen points out that as we live in a world normed and shaped by the law of Taylorism, we begin to lose compassion towards others. As everything can be made quantifiable, the winners and losers of the modern economy are simply reaping the rewards-or failures-that they have sown.

As we advance up the ladder of the meritocracy we begin to see those below us as somehow deserving of their status. “If only they had the right skills and abilities,” we say to ourselves. “If only they had looked at Facebook less at work.” “If only they had remembered the continual performance review apps and the surveys that are immediately sent out to customers they interacted with.” “If only they had done those things, then they wouldn’t have failed.”

staircase-irvine-peacockThe flip side of this coin is that the meritocracy becomes yet another project of our incessant self-justification. We see those below us on the ladder getting their just deserts, while at the same time we see ourselves as essentially deserving of what we get. We turn into the professional version of the pharisee in Luke 18: “I thank you God that I am not like those people at work who can’t measure up.  I thank you that you have made me so smart, so hardworking, so able!”

The ultimate tragedy is that this all leads to a greater personal obsession with ourselves. A perpetuation of the posture of original sin, that we are curved in on ourselves. For those benefiting from the meritocracy, this means a puffed up sense of self-righteousness with regards to the law of Taylorism. For those who have suffered, it means despair.

Chen says of some of the unemployed workers he has interviewed: “There was shame and, sometimes, self-blame. Replaying past decisions in their minds—about schooling, finances, careers—plunged them into depression and even thoughts of suicide. They were “losers,” as one worker put it, in a society that values winning at all costs.”

This whole thing seems like such a Romans 7:10 sort of thing to me (the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me). Taylorism came to us on the wave of social scientific innovation. It promised us all of the things that I saw as an undergraduate sitting in my Public Administration class: better business, better government, more jobs, more profit, better lives, more productivity. But the same thing that promised us life has proven to be death.

The ever-increasing reach of performance measurement in the cause of greater efficiency has not proven to be good news at all, it has only proven to be more law. Much in the same way that “speaking the truth in love” usually falls flat, the world of measurement-in-search-of-efficiency seems to aggravate the worst parts of human nature. No matter how much we try and couch the word of “ought” in improvement, process, and profit, the old axiom lex semper accusat (the law always accuses) proves yet again to be true.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of the piece comes in its second to last paragraph where Chen cites another one of his interviews with an unemployed worker who laments that in today’s economy, “You can’t make no mistakes. You got to do everything perfect. You can’t get into trouble. You can’t do nothing. You got nobody to run to.

As someone who understands God as the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) running towards me, his wayward child, this statement strikes me as a particularly hopeless one because it hits at the heart of what it is to live in a world that is crushed by law. A world that is devoid of the life-giving power of grace.

The Good News is that in our struggle to make our way in the meritocracy, we know that we do have someone to run to. We have someone who knows that we don’t measure up in the least, yet he picks up his robe and sprints full-tilt to embrace us, not weighing our merit, but pardoning our offenses.