The Virtues of Giving Your Best to B- Environments

A friend sent me a link to a blog post by David Heinemeier Hansson titled B- Environments Merit B- Effort, and asked me what I thought.

The Advice

I agree wholeheartedly with this:

A star environment is based on trust, vision, and congruent behavior. Make people proud to work where they work by involving them in projects that matter and ignite a fire of urgency about your purpose. Find out who you are as a company and be the very best you. Give people a strategic plan that’s coherent and believable and then leave the bulk of the tactical implementation to their ingenuity.

But I don’t think the post is offering good advice for when you find yourself in a B- environment:

If you’re doing work in a less than star environment, you owe less than star effort. Quid pro quo.

So ration your will and determination. Invest what’s left over, after meeting the bar of your work environment, in your own projects, skills, and future. The dividends is what’s going to lead you to the next, better thing. 

The post does acknowledge that you should try to improve the situation, but it sounds half-hearted:

By all means, do yours to affect and change the environment. Nudge it towards the stars. But also, accept the limitations of your power. You can drag a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.

The Problem

From a manger’s perspective the post describes important aspects of a healthy and effective environment.  Managers would be well advised to take notice.  But engineers shouldn’t follow the advice in the post because it would fail them on several levels.

First of all, it would feel crappy. The post acknowledges from the start that “being a slacker is not an innate human quality, it’s a product of the habitat … everyone wants to do a good job.”  Putting in B- effort has a cost on your psyche.  You would know you’re not doing your best, and investing “in your own projects, skills, and future,” if not aligned with the company goals, is not engaging in good faith with your employment.

Secondly, it would hurt your career.  Great engineers give their best.  They demonstrate their excellence.  If they don’t have confidence in an organization they try to improve it.  Failing that, they leave.  Rationing your effort, meeting the bar – these types of behaviors aren’t going to make you the kind of engineer that colleagues would highly recommend.  Some of the people you work with in a B- environment are going to find their way to A+ companies.  How are they going to remember you?  As a team player?  A problem solver?  Or a transactional engineer, ready to quid-pro-quo. 

My Advice

First of all, you would never start a job assuming its a B- environment.  So every job you start deserves your best from the get-go. You should apply yourself fully to the goals of the company.  As you discover issues with the environment, dedicate yourself to improving it.  Show initiative.  Suggest improvements.  Work to see them applied, and (hopefully) reap the benefits.

If you are convinced that you can no longer give your best, because you don’t have confidence in the organization, and you have done your best to improve the situation, then leave.  Other great engineers will be leaving too, or will have left, and they should feel confident in recommending you.

I have a hard time believing that even the author has spent any considerable amount of time working in a B- environment and just giving B- effort.  After all, he says that everyone should “work at a place that inspires them to give their very best. Don’t stop reaching until you have that.”  So don’t give a B- effort.  Give A+ effort until you’ve done all you can, then leave.

p.s. David Heinemeier Hansson is also the author of Rework, which I’m reading right now and am thoroughly enjoying – I will be reviewing it soon.

About brendansterne

Director of Innovation Labs, Indeed.com
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