If you see any sort of headlines about CEOs and remote work, then you likely heard that Malcolm Gladwell does not like remote work. I had some thoughts on why I think his position (and others like it) is stupid. My position is hardly uncommon – most of the arguments for returning to the office revolve around saying either a) people can’t collaborate unless they’re in the same room (the fact that team-based jobs kept up just fine since Covid happened thoroughly disproved that), b) we need it for the “culture” (“culture” has nothing to do with physical proximity, and isn’t as valued as some people think it is – although looking at that meme makes me miss the days when we at least got cubicles), or c) people aren’t productive working from home (they weren’t productive in the office either, you just thought they were because you saw them sitting at a desk). In my tweet thread, I brought up a personal hypothesis that you can group most people into 1 of 2 groups, “true believers” and “mercenaries,” that I thought warranted more details than you can get on Twitter.
How do these classifications work?
Basically, the difference between true believers and mercenaries comes down to motivations. True believers are motivated by what the company is doing, and as a result are more likely to personally sacrifice in order to benefit the company’s mission. That could be a willingness to regularly push themselves into working a bunch of extra hours on nights and weekends, work for less money, or even regularly work on vacation, because compensation isn’t what’s driving them in their jobs. These are the types of people that are seemingly the most passionate about their employers and jobs. These are also the types of employees managers think they’re going to get by making a big deal about “company culture.”
Mercenaries, on the other hand, are there to do a job. It’s not that they don’t necessarily believe in the what their employer’s doing, but they’re in a business relationship. They’ll put in extra effort if that’s what it takes to get the job done and meet deadlines, but they’re generally less likely to do it for the sake of doing it. They aren’t lazy or bad, they just don’t get any intrinsic reward from simply doing their job. You can think about these types of employees is this: “quiet quitting” is the process of people moving from being “true believers” to “mercenaries.”
Organizations need both types of employees. Part of this is because there aren’t enough true believers to fully staff anything other than the smallest of startups, but also because mercenaries tend to be specialists in their area of expertise. What’s important to remember is that there’s nothing wrong with either group. It’s perfectly fine for your job to be a means to an end and let other things be your primary motivations in life. Likewise, it’s also perfectly fine to love who you’re working for and what you’re doing professionally (it beats the opposite by a long shot).
So why does this matter?
These differences matter because these 2 groups have fundamentally different attitudes around work. As a result, you can’t treat them the same, or expect them to have the same response to the same stimuli. For instance, for any after work social event that’s attended by some employees but not all, you can rest assured that pretty much every employee in attendance was a true believer. Why? Because after-work socials aren’t part of the paycheck. Likewise, you’d likely see higher response from mercenaries to any incentive that revolved around bonuses or cash payouts. So when you see articles about managers pushing people to come back to the office and talking about how it’s important to the culture, that’s only going to appeal to the true believers. Mercenaries likely noticed that they can do the job just fine literally anywhere, without paying for gas, and may enjoy the flexibility that working remotely gives them.
Ideally, businesses will be managed and run by true believers, who will operate under the assumption that most of the people working for them are mercenaries. Put another way, the people making decisions should be the people most willing to personally sacrifice for the good of the business, rather than the rank and file who are just trying to earn a living and put some food on the table. Sure, there’s probably some true believers in the general workforce (at least there should be, there’s no good way to have a senior leadership of true believers without promoting them from within), but they’re not going to be a majority of people at your company, regardless of the lip service you pay to, and performative art you do, about “company culture.”
The truth is that fundamentally everyone is working for money. Even assuming they have nothing else outside of their jobs (which is just completely unhealthy), people still need places to live, they still need food to eat, and clothes to wear. Being able to afford all of that requires money, at a volume you can only get from working full-time hours. It doesn’t matter how much someone believes in your business and the work it’s doing, if the paycheck dries up, meeting basic biological needs will send them somewhere that pays.
In theory, you could have mercenaries running your company while trying to focus on filling the positions that actually do the working with true believers. OK, that one’s not a theory so much as what generally happens at a lot of businesses. If you want to know how well that’s working out, there’s a whole subreddit on the topic. The specific problem lies in assuming that most of the employees outside of management are true believers, because they’re not, and you can’t force people to act like they’re just there for the good of the business for long before that starts backfiring. That backfiring takes the form of people walking out and leaving the company in the lurch, quiet quitting, or burnout. True believers in any business are few and far between, and nothing anyone says is going to change that fundamental fact, but mercenaries are plentiful, generally professional, do good work, and all you have to do is pay them competitively.
Put simply, different people work for different reasons. Some motivations are fairly universal – we all need the paycheck, and to some degree we all want to work for a company we can feel good about. But those 2 things aren’t created equal, and only 1 is going to be the primary motivator in how people approach their jobs. Fundamentally, thinking that most of the people working at a company are the people who believe in the company’s mission causes people to burn out, pull back, or just quit altogether. I don’t really think anything about this is particularly shocking, or even deep. But people who should know better are complaining about the fact that people are working for money (instead of the “culture”), so I guess it’s more insightful than I initially thought.