How Bias, Abundance and Scarcity Affect Performance
This article isn’t about Queen Elizabeth II (“QEII”). It’s not about the British monarchy and their legacy of colonization, imperialism, classism, acquisition, destruction, and so on.
It is, but it isn’t. There are plenty of other articles that thoughtfully dissect a complex reality when it comes to QEII and her impact. Personally, I believe that the British empire and all its monarchs have had a devastatingly negative impact globally, and I want the entire institution of royalty to be dismantled.
I also believe that every human life is precious, and every person deserves dignity, respect, and compassion. That includes the royal family, and that includes every person on this planet.
For that reason, rather than focusing on the queen’s reign, I want to centre our attention on the people who don’t have the power and privilege she enjoyed. More specifically, how we (the societal “we”) evaluate people with privilege vs. people without, and how we’ve enabled and endorsed inequity as a result.
Since my area of focus is on business and corporations, I’ll be looking at business and workplace scenarios. In my opinion, the way QEII is being immortalized is representative of the way Western corporations treat favoured employees. For example:
Biased Performance Reviews
If you’ve ever received a “meets expectations” performance rating (i.e. average, 3 out of 5), have you also heard your boss explain, “Meeting your responsibilities is meeting expectations. So being good at your job means your performance is average, not exceptional”?
I’ve been a team manager and an HR leader, and I can tell you I’ve used that line many, many times. In HR I got push back from other team managers who wanted to recognize their staff’s great performance, but I had “hold the line” so that we didn’t have too many people rated above average (since that would blow the salaries budget).
I also heard (and said) a lot, “We hire great people, so if you’re performing great, you’re the norm. If everyone was above average, then average is meaningless. Only truly exceptional people can be rated above average.”
On the surface, that seems to make sense…until you look at who gets the above average ratings and who gets the average ratings, that is. Because the corporate criteria for what qualifies as “truly exceptional” is subjective and biased towards white supremacy culture; and the opportunities to achieve these criteria require access and privilege.
An “Outstanding” Employee
It’s a bit easier to recognize this when you take an extreme case like QEII. Check out this sample of tributes from world leaders and celebrities (links to original sources are embedded):
James Corden: “We viewed her as immortal, an essential part of the fabric of our world…She was universally adored. She represented good in this world, living a life of honor, a life dedicated to service, dedicated to bettering the lives of others.”
Israeli President Herzog: “Queen Elizabeth was a historic figure: she lived history, she made history, and with her passing, she leaves a magnificent, inspirational legacy.”
French President Emmanuel Macron: “hailed her ‘immutable moral authority’ and her ‘intimate knowledge of French’, remembering ‘a kind-hearted queen’ who was ‘a friend of France’.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “In a complicated world, her steady grace and resolve brought comfort to us all.”
Former US President Barack Obama: “the Queen had ‘captivated the world’ with a ‘reign defined by grace, elegance and a tireless work ethic’.”
Cape Town, South Africa’s mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis: “The Queen lived a long and consequential life, fulfilling her pledge to serve until her very last breath at the age of 96.”
The Guardian sums up the tributes well: “Among the most frequently invoked words were ‘duty’, ‘steadfast’ and ‘constant’, but mention was also made of her sense of humour, and of her life and role as a mother and grandmother as well as a monarch.”
An Ideal Queen Woman
(If the haters aren’t already riled up, they’re about to be.)
I’ve been listening to the news and reading those quotes, and I have an honest question, not out of spite or anti-colonialism, but out of genuine confusion:
What did the Queen actually do?
Perhaps more precisely:
What did the Queen actually do to warrant such adulation and unmitigated worship?
At this point I’m not even disputing the tributes people gave, even though I disagree with some of them. Let’s assume everything that was said is 100% true (although it isn’t).
Even if that’s the case – what did she actually do?
This is often what happens in performance reviews for 5-star rated employees. “Everyone knows” how great the employee is, but when forced to explain why, you get these intangible qualities that speak more to the person’s likability or personality than their actual achievement or outcomes.
There’s a tiny bit of merit to that, since leaders should indeed have integrity and work well with others. But these same intangible qualities (e.g. “executive presence”) which push employees from a 3 rating to a 4 or 5 are subjectively applied by the most influential organizational leaders, which even in 2022 are mostly white men and some white women.
Look at the “achievements” attributed to QEII. They sound like the masculine medieval expectations of a feminine, genteel, well-bred lady. “Grace”, “elegance”, “charm”, “wit”, “intelligence” – AND fluent in French! Aren’t these the ideal qualities of a woman?...from the 1800’s, that is.
And she was a great caregiver too, another essential feminine trait. “Dedicated to service”, “dedicated to bettering the lives of others”, “sense of duty”, “selfless”. I even heard a British man tell a TV reporter, “She was mother to the country and mother to the world.”
Oh, and her productivity! Any company would be lucky to hire this woman with a “tireless work ethic” who served “until her very last breath at the age of 96”. Sorry (not sorry), I have no intention of working until I die, and I shouldn’t be censured for that. Working until you die is not a great example of leadership.
The Privileges of Abundance
Again, I’m not here to disparage the queen, even though it may sound like I am. My criticism is mostly directed at the people who are doing the worshipping. The point is not whether she truly earned all that praise; the point is that billions of other working women deserve the same accolades, but remain unrecognized. There are literally billions of other women who could live “a long and consequential life”, if they had the same privilege and advantages QEII had – but they don’t.
Keep in mind that QEII won the genetic lottery. She was born into riches, power, and yes, responsibility. She had unlimited privilege. Did she have family conflicts and face challenges in life? Yes, she’s a human being. Did she face far fewer challenges and have more access to resources than 99.9% of human beings? Also yes.
In return for winning the genetic lottery, it was her job to serve the public for her whole life. She didn’t have to. There’s precedent for British monarchs quitting their jobs and walking away. She chose to stay. She chose to take on the responsibilities that she was born (not elected) into.
QEII was the longest reigning monarch in English history, because she became queen at age 25 when her father died and had 21st century quality healthcare. Not because she was hired after a rigorous interview process, or promoted based on her achievements. In 1953 (the year she was crowned), how many companies would have hired or a promoted a 25-year-old woman into the top position?
Her job was demanding, but I imagine she also had every advantage on her side and abundant resources at her disposal. I assume (without verification) that she would have had:
Guaranteed and continuous: childcare, elder care, pet care, housing (multiple houses), and job security
Complete medical care coverage (high quality and timely too)
“Aging-in-Place” full-time supports
Insanely high salary and guaranteed savings (no real budget constraints)
No conflicting priorities (no approval needed for “remote work” or “flex hours”)
Personal chefs (i.e. never worrying about what to make for dinner or making time for grocery shopping)
Personal dressers and buyers (i.e. no brain power wasted on figuring out what to wear)
Personal helicopters, jets, and cars (i.e. less wasted time in traffic)
Personal professional advice (accounting, legal, insurance)
On top of that, over 1,000 personal staff members, including a “Linen room assistant” and “Personal Assistant to the Queen’s Dressers”. [Side note – what the @^$% is an “Equerry”? She had five of them and three “Extra Equerries”!]
With Great Privilege comes Great Expectations
Think about the challenges that women face today and what they have to juggle at home and work. What could they accomplish if they had everything QEII had? Forget gender, shouldn’t anyone who had access to that much support reasonably be expected to do much more than the average person?
QEII never had to take a pay cut or work part-time so she could take care of her family. She never had to wonder if she could afford to have more children, or if she could afford the hospital bills when she got sick. She never had to choose between paying the rent or paying for food.
When her job required travel, she got private first-class transport and accommodation. When she needed to show “executive presence”, she had expensive designer clothes and personal dressers. When she had to speak publicly, she was trained in perfect English and diction. When her job required bilingualism, her French lessons were paid for.
It’s not surprising to me that QEII is perceived as legendary and inspirational. It would be much more surprising if she wasn’t. Because what obstacles did she face that would have prevented it? All she ever knew was abundance and luxury.
Scarcity Affects Performance
On the opposite end of the spectrum, most human beings live in varying degrees of scarcity. Two professors from Harvard and Princeton, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, have researched the neurological impacts of scarcity at length. Their studies* show that “simply raising monetary concerns for the poor erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived,” and that “the same person has fewer IQ points when preoccupied by scarcity than when not”, to such a degree that they would drop from “average” to “borderline deficient” in an IQ test.*
For ease of understanding, Mullainathan and Shafir loosely group together all the intricate brain functions affected by scarcity and call the overall impact the “bandwidth tax”*. They say the bandwidth tax “changes us in surprising and powerful ways”*, giving examples like how a cashier “lost in thought about how to make rent this month…overlooks the order of fries. She is not being careless. She is preoccupied. Thoughts such as, Should I risk being late again on my credit card? can be every bit as loud as a passing train.”*
A key insight from their research is that the bandwidth tax has a major impact on many behaviours that are often attributed to “personality” or “talent” in a work setting. To a manager, what looks like “lack of skill, no motivation, or insufficient education”, even incompetence or laziness, could be a problem of scarcity, not a problem person.*
It’s also important to recognize that financial scarcity is not the only one of its kind. Scarcity is experienced in many forms, such as time, relationships, safety, even inclusion and belonging.
This is a very simplified summary of a lengthy book on a complex subject, which does not capture all the investigation done (and definitely doesn’t do the authors justice – I highly recommend you read “Scarcity: The new science of having less and how it defines our lives” by Mullainathan and Shafir.)
I do not believe that everyone who had all of QEII’s abundance would perform as well as she did. Clearly the person she is, her nature and her nurture, played a big role in how she lived and led. Simply having abundance does not guarantee success.
BUT, not having abundance (i.e. experiencing scarcity) will guarantee lower performance, in that the person will have “fewer mental resources, less fluid intelligence and diminished executive control – making life that much harder.”*
Mullainathan and Shafir emphasize that:
“These differences are not between poor people and rich people. Rather, we are comparing how the same person performs under different circumstances. The same person has fewer IQ points when she is preoccupied by scarcity than when she is not....we are emphatically not saying that poor people have less bandwidth. Quite the opposite. We are saying that all people, if they were poor, would have less effective bandwidth.”*
Maybe it’s Not Them, it’s You
So what does this mean for companies and employers today?
There are many implications, but as far as performance goes, there’s a lot to consider. Of course companies can’t control whether employees are in scarcity or abundance – or can they?
I would argue that employers create scarcity for their employees every day in the wages they pay (not enough to live on), the deadlines they set (unrealistic and requires overtime), and the mental stress they cause (job uncertainty, no upward trajectory, undue performance pressure). Of course, these areas of scarcity are pervasive throughout the organization all the way to the C-suite, since it is driven by the capitalist need for more and more profit. Mullainathan and Shafir say “Scarcity is not just a physical constraint. It is also a mindset.”* In a capitalist mindset, there will always be scarcity, since there is never enough profit. Unless this changes, work culture won’t change.
That’s a huge can of worms to be opened on another day. For now, I’d ask employers to consider:
What blind spots do you hold towards your star employees? Like QEII's adoring public, patrons of the favoured few don't tolerate criticism towards their favourites. (QEII is as protected in death as she is in life, especially when you consider what heroes like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. went through.) In corporate settings, it's usually a career-limiting move to speak any ill of the superstars. How willing are you to intentionally look for flaws in your favourites, knowing that people will be afraid to point them out?
What obstacles prevent your employees from getting a 5-star rating? Maybe what holds them back isn’t their performance, their goals, or their work ethic. Maybe it’s what you aren’t doing to support them. If working from home 5 days a week relieves the pressure of rushing home to make dinner or taking their aging parent to the doctor, think how much more mental “bandwidth” they’d have to solve your company’s problems! If they had adequate paid time off and health insurance benefits so they don’t worry about dental bills or working while sick, how much more effective (and loyal) would they be?
What criteria are you using to rate people? What makes someone a “5” versus a “3”? Do they really have to speak perfect English without a “foreign accent” in order to be an “excellent communicator”? Do they really need an expensive tailored suit, high heels, and charisma to have “executive presence”? Does a “strong work ethic” really require working nights and weekends…until you die???
How do you treat people with opinions different from yours? If you’re sincere about wanting more “diversity” in your organization, diversity isn’t just hiring different coloured people. That’s tokenism. True diversity means diverse perspectives, mindsets, ideas, personalities, and styles.
If QEII was a Black woman who raised her voice and used profanity when disputing a racist comment, would you praise her “immutable moral authority” and “wit”?
If a Filipino man spoke Tagalog to his Filipino colleagues at lunch, would you value his linguistic skills?
If a Muslim woman wore a niqab or burka to the office, would you see her as "graceful", "elegant", and "charming"?
If an aging, lifelong employee suffered from chronic medical issues (without the kind of health care QEII enjoyed), would she be viewed as a liability or as a “mother” to the company?
What about you?
If you’re an employer, what “scarcity” mindsets do you hold? How does that impact the way you manage your work and lead your teams?
If you’re an employee, what “scarcity” mindsets do you hold? What could you do directly to reduce that scarcity? What could you influence or advocate for that would make a difference to yourself and your colleagues?
If you like, you can add your thoughts in a comment on LinkedIn.
*Quotes are from Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir's book "Scarcity: The new science of having less and how it defines our lives", pages