Michael Oakeshott’s Advice for Unhappy Employees

What Millennials in the workplace need to know from the British philosopher.

Rod Dreher recently wrote a scathing response to Jordan Price. Jordan is a former Apple employee who didn’t like his job or his boss, quit, and wrote a comprehensive takedown of both in The Huffington Post. Rod thinks Jordan’s a whiny loser. He’s probably right.

But I’ve seen both sides of this one, and I think there is a spectacularly important piece of information we tend to forget to tell our young people when we kick them out of college into the real world.

Backing up: I’ve managed maybe a dozen Millennials in several different jobs. They were considered the cream of the crop, but in most (maybe all) cases, they would have reacted the way Jordan did to the kind of management he describes (minus the editorial afterward). For a variety of reasons that have to do with how they were parented, how they were educated, and the way they were taught to view their lives (let alone their careers), a domineering boss who isn’t interested in empowering them to do their best would never have gotten the best out of them.

On the downside: sometimes this meant I, as the boss, had to work way too hard to coax even decent work out of my employees — some of them saw it as my job to motivate them. On the upside: they tended to rebel against a method of management that’s pretty incompetent when you’re dealing with any but the worst people. We’re not talking about late 19th century factories here (actually, I just spoke with an experienced business owner who’s run a factory for decades, and even he manages his company in a way Jordan would like). One of my friends’ favorite retail stores just went out of business  — something I had predicted three years ago, because everything from their corporate structure to their managerial styles was hard-wired to drive out the best workers. Jordan could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting more from the famous Apple.

So these generational tensions aren’t all bad. My friend Jessica runs a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations work through them, and I agree with her assessment that some of the Millennials’ concerns are actually quite healthy things to bring up in many corporate cultures.

All that said, a big part of Millennials’ beef with workplaces like Jordan’s is that they find they can’t immediately impact their environment. When they see things they don’t like, they often find that people don’t listen to their suggestions for change. This shocks and hurts them — but it wouldn’t have surprised anybody from almost any prior generation. That’s because Millennials have been raised to think they can change the world (implication: immediately), and any change they suggest is synonymous with innovation.

The piece of information we neglect to give them is well expressed by philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott’s talking about politics, and he’s right in that context, but his words are just as apropos to pretty much anything in life:

“Innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator” (On Being Conservative, [1956])

Change doesn’t necessarily mean innovation; variety doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. When “reformers” (be they political mavericks, religious progressives, or just an unhappy employee) want to make a change, they need to recognize it’s up to them to demonstrate, rather than assume, that the new way is better. Sometimes change turns out to be unequivocally worse. Sometimes, it improves the immediate situation but has damaging long-term effects. And sometimes, it just doesn’t happen and a little sucking it up is in order.

This post was originally published in Brian’s column on Aleteia.

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