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Tech Gurus, Junk Science, and Management Fads—My Quest to Make Work Less Miserable
By Dan Lyons
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At a time of soaring corporate profits and plenty of HR lip service about “wellness,” millions of workers–in virtually every industry — are deeply unhappy. Why did work become so miserable? Who is responsible? And does any company have a model for doing it right?
For two years, Lyons ventured in search of answers. From the innovation-crazed headquarters of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, to a cult-like “Holocracy” workshop in San Francisco, and to corporate trainers who specialize in . . . Legos, Lyons immersed himself in the often half-baked and frequently lucrative world of what passes for management science today. He shows how new tools, workplace practices, and business models championed by tech’s empathy-impaired power brokers have shattered the social contract that once existed between companies and their employees. These dystopian beliefs–often masked by pithy slogans like “We’re a Team, Not a Family” — have dire consequences: millions of workers who are subject to constant change, dehumanizing technologies — even health risks.
A few companies, however, get it right. With Lab Rats, Lyons makes a passionate plea for business leaders to understand this dangerous transformation, showing how profit and happy employees can indeed coexist.
Every age has its peculiar folly: Some scheme, project, or fantasy into which it plunges, spurred on by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the force of imitation.
—Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841
MAKE A DUCK
On a Wednesday morning in June 2017, I find myself in Menlo Park, California, sharing a small table in a faux European coffee shop with a woman I’ll call Julia—and I’m making a duck out of Legos.
Outside, it’s sunny and warm. A late-morning breeze ruffles the big bright-colored umbrellas above the tables in the plaza. Inside, young techies gaze up at the chalkboard menu above the counter and sit at tables clicking at laptops. Django Reinhardt’s guitar emanates from hidden speakers. Nobody pays any attention to the two gray-haired people sitting over near the window with their plastic toys.
Julia and I have never met before. She’s a cheery, round-faced woman in her fifties with a disarming smile and an easy laugh. Julia arrived carrying a big canvas bag filled with Legos, and they’re now scattered out on the table. As we’re making small talk, she plays with the pieces, idly snapping and unsnapping them. Soon, between sips of my caffè Americano and bites of a remarkably good almond croissant, I start tinkering with the Legos, too.
A few years earlier I briefly worked at a Silicon Valley–style start-up in Boston, a disastrous experience I chronicled in my last book, before getting a job as a writer on the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Today, I have returned to the setting of that show—which, while a real place, is also a state of mind—not for fun, but for research. For the last two years, I have made it my mission to speak to as many people as I can to better understand the modern workplace and why work today seems to make so many people unhappy. My theory is that at least some of the unhappiness at work comes from being herded into silly workshops where people are fed a bunch of touchy-feely nonsense about self-improvement and transformation.
That’s how I’ve come to be on this coffee date. Julia makes a living running the weirdest kind of corporate workshops I’ve heard about so far. In Julia’s workshops, she asks people, office workers like I once was, to play with Legos. This is an actual thing now, and the people who teach this take it very seriously. The methodology is called Lego Serious Play, and Julia is one of thousands of people who have become certified to run LSP workshops. Huge companies, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Google, have embraced it.
When I first heard about Lego workshops I thought someone was pulling my leg. I was talking to a corporate trainer—I’ll call him Edward—who said, “You know, should talk to some of my friends who are certified in Legos.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m serious,” he said. He insisted that Lego training really helps people get better at their jobs. “It’s powerful,” Edward said. “The Legos are a prop. They help get people to talk about how they feel about things, unfiltered. It’s like kids who have been abused, and they talk through a doll. People talk through their Legos.”
Oh dear God. I closed my eyes and pictured a bunch of poor Jims and Pams talking through their Legos, pouring their hearts out to a team of New Age quacks. This could be either the worst thing or the best thing I might ever see in my entire life. Maybe both.
Edward gave me a name and a number. Soon I was talking to one of the top Lego trainers in the world, a man who lives in Southern California. He put me in touch with Julia, who lives in Silicon Valley, a few miles from where I’m staying.
I’m a little disappointed, because I came here expecting, and actually half hoping, to meet a complete nut job or a shyster. Unfortunately, Julia appears to be neither. She’s very bright and really sincere. She has a master’s degree in engineering and spent two decades writing software inside some serious organizations. Moreover, I really like her. I don’t want to make fun of her. And yet—here we are, in a coffee shop, playing with Legos.
“It gets people talking,” Julia says. She tells me about the brain science that supposedly explains how Lego Serious Play works. There is, in fact, a body of scholarly looking research around LSP discussing things like the cerebral cortex and the limbic system. Julia says LSP is especially useful with software programmers, who tend to be introverts, because it creates a “safe space” where they can talk. Lego workshops also help Type-A top executives stop being such overbearing assholes, and can even be a catalyst for changing an entire organization, she claims. I can see why HR departments go nuts for this. HR people used to be glorified office managers, but now they get MBAs and are called Chief People Officers. They talk about being “strategic talent managers” who “drive corporate transformation” and are “building the workforce of the future.” They’re suckers for pop neuroscience, and though most wouldn’t know an amygdala from an anal wart, they will jump on anything that they think can rewire the brain circuitry of their employees. Lego Serious Play promises to do just that, and comes wrapped in just enough scientific-sounding literature to make it seem legitimate.
To me these sessions sound like a waking nightmare, like a cross between an EST seminar and group therapy, with the added insult of toys. Julia swears it’s not like that. Sure, at first, some people are pretty skeptical, but they’re quickly won over.
In just the past few years LSP has become a booming industry. There are LSP consultancies and LSP conferences. People write LSP books, LSP white papers, and LSP articles on LSP websites. There’s even a Global Federation of LSP Master Trainers. The concept was created in the 1990s by two business professors in Switzerland who drew on research in psychology and educational theory. Over time people started adding in theories about brain science. By one estimate more than ten thousand people have become certified Lego facilitators, and more than one hundred thousand people have participated in Lego workshops.
Lego Serious Play has grown by attaching itself to another corporate training fad: Agile. Agile has become immensely popular in the corporate world and has evolved into something akin to a religion. It’s also now a huge industry unto itself, with conferences, consultancies, trainers, gurus, and literally thousands of books devoted to its teaching. A few years ago a lot of Agile trainers started getting certifications in Lego Serious Play, since the concepts behind Lego and Agile are considered complementary. That’s how Julia got into this. She began her career as a computer engineer, but about ten years ago she became a programming coach, someone who teaches coders how to code. To do that, Julia needed to get a certification in Agile. Later, she added Legos to her bag of tricks.
That bag also includes a certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP was originally a form of New Age psychotherapy created in the 1970s by Gestalt-loving hippie shrinks at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Critics claim it is pseudoscience, but some people believe NLP can be used for mind control, like hypnosis. You load your language with keywords, study the subject’s eye movements, and use a technique called anchoring. Supposedly Tony Robbins uses NLP. A British celebrity hypnotist named Derren Brown, star of Derren Brown: Mind Control, makes videos where he manipulates people just by talking to them.
In addition to her Agile, Lego, and NLP training, Julia tells me, “I’ve also studied hypnosis.” I’m ecstatic. When I was in high school I saw a stage hypnotist get four of my schoolmates up on stage, clucking like chickens. I’ve always wanted to be hypnotized, just so I could see what it feels like.
“Could you hypnotize me? Right now? Could you put me under, right here at this table?”
“Of course,” she says. “People go into trance states all the time. Every time you drive a car, you’re in a trance state.”
“Right,” I say, “but I mean the hypnosis where you put me under, like you count backward from three and snap your fingers, or wave a watch in front of my face—that kind of thing.”
Julia explains that she would not need to do anything that dramatic. She would just talk to me. “Think about how a mother talks to a child when he scrapes his knee and gets a boo-boo and he’s crying, and she’s trying to soothe him. The mother uses one of the most powerful hypnotic phrases there is. She gives him a hug, and she lowers her voice, and she says, ‘You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.’ And he stops feeling the pain. The pain goes away.”
“So that’s hypnosis?”
Julia nods. I try not to look too sad. We’re sitting at a small table, our faces close. “You’ll be okay,” she says again. “You’ll be okay.” Her voice is breathy, her cadence lulling. With each repetition she slightly changes her inflection. “You’ll be okay.” I look away, but she keeps going. Her voice gets softer. “You’ll be okay,” she says. “You’ll be okay.”
“Okay!” I say, a little too loud. I’m incredibly suggestible, and I’m afraid that after another thirty seconds of this she could have me up on the table, clucking. If we were not sitting in a crowded café—if we were alone, in private—I would probably just let her hypnotize me. Instead, I, well, chicken out. “I get it,” I tell her. I blink my eyes a few times, as if I could shake off whatever voodoo this woman has put on me.
Of course she might have already put me into a trance. How would I know? She probably started using her NLP mind control techniques on me as soon as we sat down and began making small talk.
That’s when Julia produces a little plastic bag and spills out six Lego bricks: two red, three yellow, and then another yellow one that has eyeballs on two sides.
“Make a duck,” she says. “You have thirty seconds.”
For a moment I sit there just looking at the six plastic blocks. The image that pops into my head is a squeaky yellow bathtub duck, like the chubby rubber ducky that Ernie sings about on Sesame Street. Somehow I must combine these six rectangular Lego blocks into something that resembles a rubber ducky. The head part is obvious. But what about the others? The two red pieces are flat slabs with six knobs. Does one sit on top of the duck’s head, like a hat? I hate things like this—Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku puzzles. I hate them because I suck at them, and I never know the trick to solving the puzzle, so I just sit there flailing away. Or I just surrender and sit there staring at the cube, with the same look on my face that my cat has when he looks at the TV, wondering how those little birds got inside the box.
The clock is ticking. I start snapping and unsnapping. I feel frantic, while Julia sits there, calm as Buddha, with a bemused expression. Of course, she knows the answer. She has watched hundreds of people, maybe thousands of them, try to solve this. I wonder what percentage of people succeed. I wonder where I rate among all those people. I suspect I’m near the bottom.
This puzzle might be a kind of IQ test, and if so I’m about to land in a very low percentile. Or it could be a Rorschach test, a puzzle that reveals something about my personality. Oh, he’s one of those, I imagine Julia thinking. Companies could use the duck puzzle to evaluate workers and separate the wheat from the chaff. The good problem solvers get marked for promotion. The ninnies, like me, get put on the list for the next round of layoffs.
In a panic, I try a new configuration. This too does not work. I break up the bricks and start over. A child could do this, I tell myself. And yet I cannot.
Julia sighs, which I think is the signal that my thirty seconds are up. Quickly I snap together a four-piece duck, leaving two bricks on the table.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That’s all I could do.”
She picks up my duck and looks at it. In addition to using only four bricks, I’ve also put the head on sideways. Julia gently unsnaps the head and puts it on so that it’s facing the right way.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, stammering. “I think I got nervous. I know there must be a way to use all of the pieces, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t see it. Maybe if I had more time. I don’t know.”
“What makes you think you have to use all six bricks?” Julia says. “I never said how many bricks you had to use. All I said was make a duck.”
She gives me a little smile, as if to say, Gotcha!
It turns out that Make a Duck is the best-known exercise in the Lego Serious Play canon, and this is its lesson—that everyone makes a different duck. The duck is not a puzzle, or a brain-teaser, or an IQ test. The duck is a window into your soul. Why did I assume that I had to use all the pieces? Why did I think it was a puzzle, or an IQ test? Why was I so afraid about failing? I hate to admit this, but in less than a minute, with a half dozen plastic bricks, this woman has gutted me like a fish, and laid bare my neuroses.
But then something else occurs to me.
“Are you telling me I could just snap any two bricks together and call it a duck?”
“Sure,” she says.
“Or I could just hand you back a single brick and say, ‘Here you go, here’s my duck.’”
“Whatever you make, that’s your duck. That’s how you make a duck. And your duck is different from everyone else’s duck. Besides, these aren’t ducks, are they? They’re representations of a duck. They’re metaphors for a duck.”
I have to give Julia credit. She has an answer for everything. There’s no way to shake her faith in Legos. What’s more, she genuinely believes she is helping people. And maybe she is. A lot of people benefit from going to church, and I don’t begrudge them their beliefs.
Lego workshops are just one example of the nonsense that is creeping into the workplace. A lot of Agile trainers also do workshops with Play-Doh. In another game, called Six Thinking Hats, people put on different colored hats and role-play. In something called the Ball Point Game, teams compete to find the fastest way to pass tennis balls into a bucket, fire-brigade style. Do a search for “Ball Point Game” on YouTube and you can watch fully sentient adult human beings actually doing this at work.
Why now? Why has the workplace become a cross between a kindergarten and a Scientology assessment center? Why do our offices now have decor that looks like a Montessori preschool, with lots of bright, basic colors? Why does work now involve such infantilization?
I suspect it’s because companies are scared. We live in an age of chaos, a period when entire industries are collapsing. We’re headed into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and facing “transformation…unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” says Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum. Even the biggest, most powerful companies in the world are threatened with extinction. To survive, the Big Old Companies must evolve, and recode their DNA. That means replacing or transforming their people, which is why they’re digging into our brains and trying to rewire our circuits.
But what does all this psychological poking and prodding do to us? The problem isn’t just that these exercises are pointless and silly. For a lot of people this stuff can be really stressful. For older workers—say, people over fifty—these workshops compound the fear they already have about being pushed out of their jobs. But younger workers hate them, too. “It feels like you’ve joined a cult,” says a thirty-something software programmer whose department spent a day doing a Lego workshop. “The purpose seems to be to indoctrinate people to follow orders.”
You find yourself being gaslighted, immersed in the kind of shared psychosis and group delusion found in cults. You know these workshops are pointless, and that no one is going to be transformed by Legos. But to keep your job, you must play along. You must deliver a performance and convince management that you are flexible, adaptable, and open to change, the kind of engaged, dynamic worker who meets the needs of the new economy. Basically the company is conducting a large-scale experiment in organizational behavior. They’d like to test out some theories on you. So you all go into the box, and you are poked and prodded with various stimuli to see how you respond.
Your office has become a psychology laboratory, run by a bunch of quacks. You’re not a duck. You’re a lab rat.
This coffee date with Legos marked just a single stop on what would become my yearlong quest to figure out how work is changing, and, more important, why it is changing. The quest would take me to conferences in the United States and Europe, and to the headquarters of Steelcase, the office-furniture maker, where researchers are trying to figure out how to make offices that are more human-friendly. I’d talk to anthropologists and architects, psychologists and sociologists, management consultants, management coaches and management gurus, economists and engineers, doctors and diversity advocates, lawyers and venture capitalists, business professors and Agile coaches and Lego trainers, and one very frightened billionaire who fears that angry proles are going to launch a violent revolution against people like him.
Over the course of this journey I came to believe that much blame for worker unhappiness falls on Silicon Valley. For one thing, that’s where most new office automation technologies are developed. But also, in addition to producing chips and software, Silicon Valley now aims to remake the notion of the corporation itself, by inventing radical new ideas about how to build and manage companies. Unfortunately, many of their ideas are terrible.
In Part 2 of this book I explore four tech-related tendencies—what I call “The Four Factors”—that contribute to worker unhappiness. They are:
- MONEY: We make a lot less today than we did a generation ago. The scale and scope of the robbery that has been carried out on American workers amount to trillions of dollars per year—and the heist has been helped along by technology. You’ll find the numbers in Chapter 6.
- INSECURITY: We live in constant fear of losing our jobs. That’s because employers, especially in Silicon Valley, are adopting a “new compact” with workers. As I explain in Chapter 7, your job is no longer the start of a career, but just a short-term “tour of duty.”
- CHANGE: New technologies, new methodologies, kooky new arrangements for where we work and how we work—we are overwhelmed by a workplace that never stays the same for very long. In Chapter 8, you’ll find research that shows that being exposed to persistent, low-grade change leads to depression and anxiety. The suffering is akin to what we experience after the death of a loved one or spending time in combat.
- DEHUMANIZATION: Once upon a time we used technology, but today technology uses us. We’re hired by machines, managed by them, even fired by them. We’re monitored and measured, constantly surveilled. As I explain in Chapter 9, we are expected to become more like machines ourselves.
The good news is that in the course of my journey I also discovered people who are pushing back against these changes that are hurting workers and wreaking havoc on society. In Oakland, Chicago, New York, Boston, and elsewhere, entrepreneurs are forming companies that put the needs of employees first. These companies pay well, sometimes more than they have to. They provide good benefits, and promote work-life balance. Their goal is to provide good, sustainable jobs for as many people as possible. What a shock! You’ll find their stories in Part 3 of this book.
I wrote this book because I believe we have reached an important turning point, one where we must make an important decision. We need to decide what the future will look like. Do we want the world to be tech-centric, or human-centric? If we stick with the tech-centric path that Silicon Valley proposes, we will end up with more of what we have now—more misery, ever-worsening income inequality, and potentially catastrophic outcomes. Or we can turn back and embrace a new kind of capitalism. We can create a human-centric future, where employees are treated with dignity and respect, and workers get a fair share of the wealth that their labor is creating. Obviously I’m rooting for the latter.
Before we figure out how to get out of this mess, let’s examine how we got into it.
MISERY IN THE MAZE
UNHAPPY IN PARADISE
The journey that led to me making ducks out of Legos began in 2013, when at age fifty-two I left the media business—not entirely of my own accord. Specifically, I was laid off from Newsweek, the once storied magazine where I had been the technology editor. This happened without any warning. One Friday morning in June my editor called and told me I was done. That was it. I got no severance package. Getting fired sent me into a tailspin. The media business was collapsing. In my darkest moments I worried that I might never find another job. Then what would we do? My wife and I have twins; at the time they were seven years old.
In the months that followed, I decided to make a radical change. I would leave journalism and reinvent myself as a marketing person. I started applying for jobs at tech companies. Soon enough, a software start-up in Cambridge, called HubSpot, offered me a job. I went in with high hopes. The co-founders were a pair of MIT graduates. They had developed a software product that was selling really well. But they were also doing something else that was even more ambitious. They were going to tear up the playbook that corporations have used for the past century and rethink every aspect of how to run a company. The world had changed, and so should companies. These guys believed they could create a modern corporation that would meet the needs of the new economy.
Thus HubSpot became a kind of experiment in organizational behavior. Part of the experiment involved hiring mostly young kids right out of college and turning them loose, with very little instruction, so they could figure things out for themselves. The average employee was twenty-six years old. They were peppy and energetic, brimming with optimism and new ideas.
The offices boasted all the usual start-up accoutrements—beanbag chairs, Ping-Pong tables, a wall of candy dispensers, refrigerators stocked with beer. We could work whenever and wherever we wanted. One woman spent a year working from trains and hotel rooms as she followed Justin Timberlake as he toured the United States. We had unlimited vacation and first-rate health insurance, completely paid for by the company. One co-founder built a nap room. The other brought a teddy bear to meetings as a prop. We did wacky team-building exercises, like Fearless Friday, where my colleagues spent a day sprawled in a conference room, making paintings.
The organization had evolved into something like a cult. We were told that it was harder to get a job at HubSpot than to get into Harvard. The company had developed its own special language. We were told that we were “rock stars” and “ninjas” who were “changing the world” with our “superpowers.” We were told to “make one plus one equal three” and to devote ourselves, with almost religious zeal, to providing our customers with “delightion,” a made-up word that meant delighting customers by doing more than they expected. We weren’t in the software business; we were in the delightion business.
Sure, it was silly, but who cared? The work was easy, the hours light. I liked the flexibility, the free snacks in the kitchen, the hammock in the nap room. Most of all I was relieved to be in a place where I would not have to worry about job security. The company was growing so fast they could barely keep up. They were constantly hiring new workers. For the past ten years I’d been living with constant job insecurity. In the magazine business, the next layoff always loomed. At long last, I could relax. At HubSpot, my job would be secure. Or so I thought. Within a few months, I came to understand that this fast-growing start-up offered even less job security than any of the failing magazines where I’d been working before. Turnover was tremendous, especially in sales and telemarketing.
What’s more, the company did not see high turnover as a problem. They were proud of it. They considered it a badge of honor. It demonstrated that the company had a “high-performance culture” where only the best of the best could survive. Weirder still, when they fired someone they called it “graduation.” We would get an email saying how “awesome” it was that so-and-so was “graduating,” taking their “superpowers” on to a new adventure.
A Guardian Best Book of 2019
- An Inc. Magazine Best Business Book of 2018
- "I loved Dan Lyons's book Disrupted. With Lab Rats, he takes his critique of the modern workplace to the next level, to show how Silicon Valley's sometimes disturbing ideas about how to treat employees now pervade many workplaces. This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, hilarious, and sometimes harrowing account of current work culture."—Gretchen Rubin, #1 NewYork Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and TheFour Tendencies
- "Dan Lyons's Lab Rats defies easy description. It is hilarious, but not funny. I sputtered laughing and choked crying (literally, not figuratively) as I read it. Yes, to an extreme, Lyons gives Silicon Valley the thrashing that it, alas, largely deserves. But in the final third of the book, he offers us an effectively illustrated way out--an approach to work and business that puts people first, profitably serves customers, and makes the world a little bit better in the process."—Tom Peters, NewYork Times bestselling author of In Search of Excellence
"A lively and spirited takedown."
- "[Lyons] argues persuasively.... A passionate indictment of brutal workplace culture."—Kirkus Reviews
- "[A] darkly funny journalistic look at the contemporary workplace.... By turns sardonic and impassioned, this is an insightful and frequently entertaining guide to the increasingly bizarre world of Silicon Valley and the trends it spawns."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "[Lab Rats] exposes the junk science and questionable management practices that have migrated from Silicon Valley to the rest of the economy."—Knowledge@Wharton
- "Fair warning: you may need an extra set of hands around while you're reading Lab Rats. You'll need them to help pick your jaw up off the floor."—Houston Style Magazine
- "With Lab Rats, Lyons makes a passionate plea for business leaders to understand this dangerous transformation and offers a way out."—BookPassage
- "This book should be required reading for anybody who thinks working for a startup in Silicon Valley would be fun."—TechNewsWorld
- "Skewering corporate jargon, management science, and, worst of all, enforced fun, Lyons's waggish jeremiad lays out how the world of work has changed for the worse."—Tatler
- "An entertaining polemic against the tech industry.... Instead of obsessing about unicorns (startup companies worth more than $1 billion), the author thinks the world should look for 'zebras,' which can turn a profit and improve society at the same time. Many modern workers will agree."—The Economist
- "Lyons is a very funny journalist... Much of his polemic rings true."—The Financial Times
- "Entertaining... A worthwhile and disturbing read."—Sunday Business Post
"Funny and frightening."
- "Dan Lyons'... quest to understand the modern workplace has yielded an amusing but often harrowing report from the front lines."—Boston Globe
- On Sale
- Oct 23, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books