Discover more from Work. Better.
Unqualified leaders create strained work environments
It has been a rough week. On a personal note, I’m recovering from dental surgery. On a broader note, layoffs continue (including a friend of mine). And I’ve also been bombarded by soundbites from industry leaders determined to feed the narrative of productivity panic and “nobody wants to work anymore.”
All of this has led to a lot of pain. Adding to my tooth pain, I think about the genuine harm that layoffs cause and the harm of nonsense like “you just need to get over burnout.”
Usually this lack of empathy comes from leaders who lack introspection in the first place. Because they failed upwards into their roles. That is: they were never qualified to lead in the first place and by luck or by a powerful network have landed in a place that enabled them to mess with people’s lives.
How did we get here?
Failing upwards isn’t new. From nepotism to the “good ol’ boys’ club” there have always been ways for mediocre people to get ahead.
The differences now are a) the recipients of such power have giant social platforms and b) there has been a lot of free-flowing venture capital money for the past few years. The combination of amplified voices and access to money has made it easier for imposters to gain control — and stay there.
To be clear: there is a big difference between providing opportunities to underrepresented populations and giving jobs to deeply unqualified people. One is opening a door for people who may not have traditional education backgrounds or removing barriers during the hiring process (like a hard requirement of X years of experience). The other is handing a role to someone, based on a connection or inner circle, and then allowing that person to perform incompetently, with no checks and balances or desire to improve.
Take Adam Neumann, for example. The former CEO of WeWork failed spectacularly by all accounts, yet managed to secure a new $350 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz in August of 2022 for a new real estate venture with an unclear value proposition. Talking about failing upwards into more money.
While on the extreme end, the investment represents the epitome of failing upwards: from one failed venture to the next, on nothing more than razzle-dazzle.
On a smaller scale, those with social connections and influence have seized power — and they’re not letting go. They can spew utter hot air on LinkedIn and somehow people still listen, presumably for no reason other than “This person sits high on the corporate ladder; I should pay attention.” Proper vetting of that person’s credibility is utterly lacking.
Power fights back
In addition to lacking necessary leadership qualities, these upward failures often lack empathy. Understandable, since they didn’t achieve anything through skills or hard work. Yet in their positions of power they think everyone else should work for them (so they don't have to work as much).
In, Ed Zitron wrote the following:
The whole Quiet Quitting fiasco clearly upset [the corporate elite] - the idea that workers would take the same liberties with what a work day was (doing what they were required to do versus working beyond their contractually-mandated hours) that executives do was truly offensive - and the idea that workers could choose where to take their talents was equally noxious.
There was nothing for power to do but fight back, railing against quiet quitting (otherwise known as “doing the job you’re paid to do”) and even taking a swing at burnout. Even though burnout has been shown to be rampant following the Covid-19 pandemic, the upwards failures couldn’t handle the idea. People are here to work— how dare they not work hard, all the time! No breaks allowed!
It goes back to lack of empathy. On a podcast, a supposed “leader” mocked people experiencing burnout, saying that she had experienced burnout at least “fifty times in the past 2+ years” and people just need to “move through that.”
No one who has actually burned out would imply that you can simply “move through that.” You might have been tired or stressed, but there’s no way that you burned out fifty times and kept going.
This struggle for power has culminated in mass layoffs in the tech world, even from companies that have shown record profits. Time to buckle down, make people work harder, and scare them into obedience… all while claiming that “the economy” is to blame.
Impacted employees are expected to take their severance and move on, with few people calling out the poor leadership and poor decision-making that led to the layoffs in the first place. The money was so free-flowing for so long that upward failures could remain hidden in plain sight — and used that time to further their social influence.
Power protects power
Not only do people in power fight to keep their power, but they also protect each other. Sometimes knowingly (with a wink that “we got here together”), sometimes with the unknowing assumption that upward failures have somehow earned their roles.
The platform to maintain power is huge and full of mutual congratulations and support (see: LinkedIn). It becomes easier to hide the shortcomings once the highest rung on the corporate ladder is reached.
Some people — like me — would like to call out the B.S. but it’s like picking a fight in a very public and “professional” forum. So the upward failures are further protected by civility.
One time, I left a scathing Google review for a vendor I’d worked with. The company was completely unprofessional, the work was sloppy, and the monthly billings were expensive. It took the leadership team at my company a year to finally say “enough is enough” and sever the contract.
After my review was published, a former colleague asked me to take it down. He acknowledged that everything I wrote was true, but the vendor’s CEO was a friend of his and he was worried that it would cause friction. Could I please take it down — as a professional courtesy to him?
I politely declined, citing that I felt compelled to warn other customers that the work was terrible. My former colleague went on a tirade (via text message), telling me that his entire view of me was tarnished forever because I wouldn’t do this one thing to help his friend.
The two of them contacted Google and got the text of my review removed (unsure how), though the star rating remained.
They had power and I had no means to fight back. Upward failures protected each other — and outsiders are kept in the dark.
Employees don’t have the same platform to connect. If they complain, they’re seen as disgruntled rather than speaking truth to power. Glassdoor only works if people bother to read reviews. Warnings about a company and its leaders often happen through DMs, outside of a public forum.
Meanwhile, some people are caught in exploitative situations. They can see a leadership team flailing, but can’t leave — for financial reasons, health insurance, whatever. The job market is brutal right now, and job hopping is a much bigger risk than it was a year ago.
So they quiet quit their way through the day and I say more power to them. Whether led by upward failures or not, companies that don’t value their employees deserve nothing.
You can pour your energy into finding a new job (“rage applying”), taking care of your family, pursuing your own passions. Don’t keep the machine running.
No rage applying for me (since I work for myself), but does rage writing this newsletter count?
This publication is free because I love sharing ideas and connecting with others about the future of work. If you want to support me as a writer, you can buy me a coffee.
A roundup of stuff from around The Interwebs. Some to make you smile, some to make you roll your eyes. And some stuff that I wrote on other platforms.
Recovering from Burnout | Dr. Jessica Metcalfe (TikTok)
The Generation Shaped by Layoffs | Clio Chang, Medium
Stop Publishing Garbage on the Internet | me, Medium
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Twitter for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.