Deflating the balloon of self-esteem

April 18, 2002
I subscribe to Consumer Reports magazine, but not because I take its ratings seriously. I subscribe because I believe in knowing my enemy.
Editorial CommentApril 18, 2002

I disagree with just about every bit of strident - almost maniacal -consumerism that the magazine preaches, and I want to keep track of what it is attacking.

The same "know your enemy" objective makes me read management magazines and financial newspapers. These publications write about the cadres of MBAs and other top dogs who hold our futures in their hands, and I want to know what they are thinking. I classify this as "know your enemy" because I almost never like what I read.

It is easy to become annoyed perusing these publications, especially if you happen to possess genuine skills. Management publications typically portray a world where nobody has to know anything. The most valued skill in this domain is knowing how to "manage," but the knowledge required to do this is never spelled out explicitly. That makes me wonder if such a body of knowledge actually exists.

The main theme showing through in management publications is the sense of self-importance and flattery swirling around the business community. This narcissism is aided and abetted by reporters who accord executives a celebrity status similar to the way fan magazines write about movie stars.

Even the rank-and-file is often portrayed as having almost magical capabilities. For example, regardless of whether an article is talking about hiring or laying off staff, the people being discussed are rarely referred to as employees. Instead, they are called "talent," with the word used in a way to imply that every paper pusher in the company has the powers of Houdini. You read about hiring new talent or how not to lose talent you'll need when business improves. Always "talent," never people or employees. This irritates me because I've circulated in and about business and industry for several decades, and I can't remember bumping into much "talent." It is the human condition for all of us to be marginally competent, but we manage to get by. A lot of people have a hard time coming to grips with this.

Also, I've become annoyed by people who call themselves "knowledge workers." Fresh out of college I started doing stress analysis and aerodynamics in the aircraft industry. The entire design group was populated by smart people, but none of us thought of ourselves as "knowledge workers." Today, in contrast, everyone who knows how to log onto the Internet fancies themselves a priest or priestess in the "knowledge" universe.

The letters written to management publications also reveal readers having an inflated sense of self-importance. In one such letter, the author does not spell out what his "talent" is other than to mention his MBA. But he brags that he can be employed geographically anywhere he chooses because he is, as he anoints himself, a "knowledge worker." Then he complains about a company that tried to recruit him, but it wanted him as he derisively describes it to reside in their bricks and mortar. He highly resented the fact that the firm wanted him, a knowledge worker, to show up at the office like everyone else.

I would like to ask all these talented "knowledge workers" about the last time they turned water into wine, metaphorically speaking. My bet is that their accomplishments are modest at best, but their egos will never let them admit it.

- Ronald Khol, Editor

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