matter of indifference


“It is a matter of indifference to the man of large affairs whether the disturbances which his transactions set up in the industrial system help or hinder the system at large, except in so far as the ulterior ends to serve. But most captains of modern industry have such ulterior ends.”

Thorstein Veblen – the Machine Age


“It is much more difficult to recede from a scale of expenditure once adopted than it is to extend the accustomed scale in response to an accession of wealth.”

Thorstein Veblen


I sometimes believe it is difficult for people, even experts in the business of doing business, to realize the depth of indifference wealthy successful business people (mostly men) are to ‘disturbances which their transactions may set up.” There is a depth to the indifference mostly because there is a depth to (a) ends and (b) what they have.

Let me go to ‘ulterior ends’ first.

Stock price is going up, profits are good, ‘efficiency’ is reasonable. The ends make you happy.

You pick up the paper (or scan your news feed) and see the world is raging at inequality, lack of employee engagement, and how the future of work is, well, some gobbledygook you just don’t see for your business.

You call your CTO and ask “are we keeping up on technology/data infrastructure?” (yes)

You call your HR Director and ask “is anything unusual happening in employee retention/hiring?” (no)

You call your Operations Head and ask “are we good?” (nothing we cannot handle)

You call your CFO and ask “how do you think we are looking financially?” (great)

Your ends look fine, the ‘how we are getting them’ doesn’t seem out of whack, so, “I don’t know what these people are talking about.” Success is a real sonuvabitch to implementing change let alone actually improving the lot of the people within the means to create those ends. To be clear. I am not saying that some good things won’t be thrown to the humans, just that they aren’t really what Is needed. In general, even with all the talk of “fixing business”, most really wealthy successful business leaders are indifferent to the real issues their businesses create. I can’t remember the group of business leaders in some business roundtable agreeing to some “improved vision for the future” but suffice it to say they were full of shit. My proof? It was several years ago and I actually believe the business world is a more miserable place for employees than it was. That doesn’t mean businesses haven’t taken steps to make their businesses more resilient to future needs <environment, technology, etc.> but they are steps to insure ends, not improve means.

Which leads me to what you have.

Two words: hedonic adaptation. I would argue that the more power, and illusion of control, you gain the more the likelihood you act more hedonic with regard to those things – not just money and materialistic things. Once you have something, especially if it’s a LOT of something, you become a little indifferent to people who are yelling at you, or about you, about how much you actually do have. Yeah. Sure. You think about some things you can do to mute the yelling a bit but generally speaking you are indifferent to those not exactly in your position because, in general, you see ‘what you have’ as something created by climbing a ladder and if they are near the bottom rungs you struggle to see exactly who they are and what they really want/need. The larger your wealth the deeper into the hole of indifference the bottom of that ladder resides.

I will add, lastly, from a leader’s perspective that when they ‘give’ some of things (what is thrown to the humans) then all of a sudden the mirror twists to “what you have.” It’s a deflection technique well known at the C-level.


To end this.

I may have made my point quite starkly and people will push back that its not that stark. And they may be right. My point is that this is the baseline observation/belief/insight of all the people who actually could do something about the future of business at large. This is their starting point reality. So maybe my point is a basic psychology one. If they begin so far apart from reality of, well, humans, how could they possibly envision real solutions? Let me answer that. They can’t. So, while they may quote some smart-ish books and say some of the right words they have no real clue, or even have a compelling mindset shift, to create real solutions. They don’t even know how to change their mindsets. And therein lies the indifference. If they cannot envision, truly envision, the right mindset issues they will always be at least to some degree indifferent to real issues no matter how loud, or how large, the voices of desired change are.  The conflicting perspectives is unbridgeable which leads to, well, indifference.

My point? With all we talk of improving business most of the people who can actually create the change we desire are, well, indifferent to ‘the disturbances which his transactions set up in the industrial system help or hinder the system at large’ because ‘so far as the ulterior ends’ (their ends) have been served. Ponder.

Written by Bruce