Free Market Professionalism

snake oil salesman 2

10- 15 years ago I discovered the Wannabe Economy.

It’s staffed by speakers, writers, facilitators, hosts, coaches, consultants… awake, aware, alive, attractive people ready to show us how to have it as good as they do. I needed their help. I dove in, gobbled up their wares.

At one point, I tried to be a Wannabe provider myself (books and workshops). But then doubt started stalking me: was I promoting sustainable change or just trashing people’s lives? How would know? I meant well, but so do lots of harmful people. The Wannabe Economy didn’t have an existential crisis:  it championed personal responsibility and trusted the marketplace to sort  things out.

The pitch is, “Do this, get that” — here’s the secret, the key, the code. the password, the knock. This gets you in. We want in, so we lay our money down. We feel grateful. We go for it. Then what? It’s all on us — personally responsibility, remember? — so if it works, we did it right, and if it doesn’t, we didn’t. We don’t call our guru to account; instead, we buy more.[1]

Why? Because we want desperately to play until we win. The sellers are invariably charismatic, assured, happy, rich — or appear to be. We believe in their sincerity, look for and find evidence that they live what they’re selling. (They’re making money selling to us, but we miss that point.) So we keep shelling it out, keep trying to finesse our way to the promised land. Meanwhile, our guides have no skin in the game — not our game, at least. There’s no investment, only well wishes.

I suspect that 99.999% of the helpers in the self-help industry genuinely want to help. But it’s a business, after all, not charity.[2] There’s no mens rea for buyer’s remorse in the Wannabe Economy. You pays your money, you takes your chance. Caveat emptor.

And, more pertinent to this blog, what I just described has become how “professional” services are bought and sold. Capitalism serves up both the Wannabe Economy and Free Market Professionalism.

Any problem with that?

In two words, trust and accountability, which are reducible to one word:   professionalism. And professionalism is taking a beating in the free market. That’s the message of this article: Why A Market Model Is Destroying The Safeguards Of The Professions. It’s written by a German academic mostly about the medical profession, but it applies to other professions as well.

“Wasn’t there a time when professionals still knew how to serve us – a cosy, well-ordered world of responsible doctors, wise teachers and caring nurses? In this world, bakers still cared about the quality of their bread, and builders were proud of their constructions. One could trust these professionals; they knew what they were doing and were reliable guardians of their knowledge. Because people poured their souls into it, work was still meaningful – or was it?

“In the grip of nostalgia, it’s easy to overlook the dark sides of this old vocational model. On top of the fact that professional jobs were structured around hierarchies of gender and race, laypeople were expected to obey expert judgment without even asking questions. Deference to authority was the norm, and there were few ways of holding professionals to account.

“Against this backdrop, the call for more autonomy, for more ‘choice’, seems hard to resist. This is precisely what happened with the rise of neoliberalism after the 1970s, when the advocates of ‘New Public Management’ promoted the idea that hard-nosed market thinking should be used to structure healthcare, education and other areas that typically belonged to the slow and complicated world of public red tape. In this way, neoliberalism undermined not only public institutions but the very idea of professionalism.

“This attack was the culmination of two powerful agendas. The first was an economic argument about the alleged inefficiency of public services or the other non-market structures in which professional knowledge was hosted.

“The second was an argument about autonomy, about equal status, about liberation – ‘Think for yourself!’ instead of relying on experts. The advent of the internet seemed to offer perfect conditions for finding information and comparing offers: in short, for acting like a fully informed customer.

“These two imperatives – the economic and the individualistic – meshed extremely well under neoliberalism. The shift from addressing the needs of citizens to serving the demands of customers or consumers was complete.

“The imperatives of productivity, profitability and the market rule.

“We are all customers now; we are all supposed to be kings. But what if ‘being a customer’ is the wrong model for healthcare, education, and even highly specialised crafts and trades?

“What the market-based model overlooks is hyperspecialisation, as the philosopher Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015). We depend on other people’s knowledge and expertise, because we can learn and study only so many things in our lifetimes. Whenever specialist knowledge is at stake, we are the opposite of a well-informed customer. Often we don’t  want to have to do our own research, which would be patchy at best; sometimes, we are simply unable to do it, even if we tried. It’s much more efficient (yes, efficient!) if we can trust those already in the know.

“But it can be hard to trust professionals forced to work in neoliberal regimes.

“Responsible professionalism imagines work-life as a series of relationships with individuals who are entrusted to you, along with the ethical standards and commitments you uphold as a member of a professional community. But marketisation threatens this collegiality, by introducing competitiveness among workers and undermining the trust that’s needed to do a good job.

“Is there a way out of this conundrum? Could professionalism be revived? If so, can we avoid its old problems of hierarchy while preserving space for equality and autonomy?”

Good questions that deserve engaged, real-time answers from people with skin in the game.

[1] For a scathing description of this particular consumer behavior in the Wannabe Economy,  see 11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness (Hint: Unhappy People Buy Things) Inc. (Oct. 19, 2017).

[2] Although it is very much a religion — I write more on topics like that in another context.

Burned Out? Try a Little Tenderness

otis redding

Thanks to Julian Izbiky for sharing “Does Taking Time For Compassion Make Doctors Better At Their Jobs?NPR (April 28, 2019). It’s about doctor burnout, but its lessons apply equally to lawyers[1] and anyone else who might benefit from the “helper therapy principle” — the idea that helping someone helps yourself — something research shows is especially useful as an antidote to career burnout.

The article profiles the research of Dr. Stephen Trzeciak and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, colleagues in a major medical system looking to improve patient care. They started with a question:  “Can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of both patients and doctors?” 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers convinced them the answer was a resounding yes.

“When health care providers take the time to make human connections that help end suffering, patient outcomes improve and medical costs decrease. Among other benefits, compassion reduces pain, improves healing, lowers blood pressure and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

The two c-authored Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference to describe their findings and to prescribe how compassion can be learned. And once it’s learned, a little goes a long way:

“One study they cite shows that when patients received a message of empathy, kindness and support that lasted just 40 seconds their anxiety was measurably reduced.”

Plus, it was as blessed to give as to receive:

“But compassion doesn’t just benefit its recipients … Researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people spent time doing good for others … it actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it.

“For doctors, this point is crucial. Fifty-six percent say they don’t have time to be empathetic.

“‘The evidence shows that when you invest time in other people, you actually feel that you have more time, or that you’re not so much in a hurry,’ Trzeciak says.”

Did you catch that? Taking a moment to connect human-to-human “actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it” — an astonishing concept for doctors and lawyers enslaved to a clock that measures time, money, and productivity in six-minute increments.[2]

That’s not the only paradigm-shifting implication of Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s findings:

“‘We’ve always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It’s probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout,’ Trzeciak said. ‘That human connection — and specifically a compassionate connection — can actually build resilience and resistance to burnout.’

“Trzeciak and Mazzarelli hope their evidenced-based arguments will spur medical schools to make compassion part of the curriculum.”

How about we add it to the law school curriculum, too?

And thanks to “helper’s high,” the benefits of compassion and connection extend to non-professional work as well. Just think what that would do for “customer service.” (Those Discover commercials are the good, this is the bad and the ugly — and the funny.) And according to this Psychology Today article, you can feel the benefits:

“Helpers report a distinct physical sensation associated with helping; about half report that they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

Emily Esfahani Smith’s widely-cited book, The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters (2017), makes the same point:  relationships and helping create meaning and chase away burnout. That’s was also the message of a 1997 classic on the subject, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, which also observed that burnout is both endemic and epidemic in workplace culture:

“Burnout is reaching epidemic proportions among North American workers today. It’s not so much that something has gone wrong with us but rather that there have been fundamental changes in the workplace, and the nature of our jobs.

“The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.

“But our research argues most emphatically otherwise, As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”

Dr. Trzeciak used his research findings to turn around his own career burnout. Here’s his TEDxPenn talk. He also “prescribes the same for anyone, not just health care providers, suffering from mental or emotional exhaustion.”

“‘Look around you and see those in need of compassion and give your 40 seconds of compassion,’ he says. ‘See how it transforms your experience.’”

Julian Izbiky wrote this when he emailed me the article:  “I’ve always thought that the practice of law was about more than the documents and that the joy of the practice was connecting with the clients and the other participants in the deals.”

Got 40 seconds to give it a try?

And now, if you’re like me, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” has been playing in the background. How about a listen? Here’s his version. And here’s the Three Dog Night cover.

[1] As I’ve said before, burnout is legion in the professions. I Googled “burnout doctors lawyers” and got tons of hits, including this one:  “I Fought The Law And The Law Won: My Burnout Story,” Forbes (May 17, 2018).

[2] Here’s a brief history of the billable hour in legal practice. The rationale for it might have seemed sound 60 years ago; my personal view is we could move on. Nobody kept timesheets at my firm.