One of my first bosses told me many years ago that I’d have a happier life and a happier career if I didn’t know what the guy in the next cubicle was earning. “Always defend your value,” he said, “but don’t judge your value just by the dollars you take home. If you care about your job, your worth will be self-evident.”

There is an old dichotomy at work here. Most people who worry about money do so because they have to. Yet most of us agree there is much more to life than money. Except for the times my budget has been stressed enough to force me to cut back on important things, I figure many more people have had a harder time making ends meet and providing for dependants. It’s a tough world out there.

But none of that accounts for the way most people’s job performance is rewarded and this strikes me as odd since we work in a measurable world where metrics and performance indicators are considered more important than ever. Salespersons and the other rainmakers have hard numbers to be compensated by, but most managers and executives don’t. We benchmark our product and service outcomes in much more detail than we benchmark our people. Budgets and forecasts are constantly revisited; managers are usually peer-benchmarked once a year for a couple of hours, (which might be the only time to update a job description that no longer fits).  

Even people with targets might fall into peer groups. I've read that several of those fund managers who were asked to return their hefty bonuses amid the financial failures actually performed better than expected in legitimate ways and earned the money their contracts called for. Unfortunately for them, their fate was linked to a flat-lined job description more than their performance.

I’m not saying it’s easy to measure a skill like leadership or that hard metrics are the only judge. A job like mine calls for a bunch of soft skills that include the ability to communicate, to understand an industry, to put divergent thoughts together, to run or assist in a bunch of projects, to write stories and turn a good sentence or two along the way. Success for me might translate to an increase in subscriptions, projects that open new markets or the fact that more of you have read my story this far. Luck is also temporal; right now is a better time to be in information management than in banking.

I can think of success metrics for teachers or policemen or doctors (or DBAs for that matter) while understanding that circumstances can take control of success away from those professionals. Also, labor unions, lawsuits or the available job pool might have a greater effect on those groups than on managers when it comes to flattening performance metrics.
What’s striking these days is that in talking to a lot of highly-placed folks (which is also part of my job) I am getting a sense of job performance anxiety based on a lack of demonstrable metrics showing how much these same people contribute back to their organization’s success. For those who are not trying to lay low and hide their way through the slump, justifying value in some quantifiable way feels more important to them than ever. And the more you make, the more visible you are.

Now we’re at a precipice where a few of the smartest people I know have lost their jobs and several more feel themselves at risk. People who are working find themselves busier than ever while the unemployed pool is lurking, smarter and more talented than ever before. Supply and demand is not presently the unmeasured worker’s friend. Even for those who expect a turnaround, that’s performance anxiety.

The more that educated global economies connect and merge, the more you’re likely to feel your job commoditized or localized unless you have some kind of comparative metrics to be measured by or skills rare enough to demand a contract or a guaranteed bonus.

It might not be a coincidence that the statistics-happy sport of baseball seems to be a refuge of acceptable overcompensation at a time when the extravagantly overpaid are widely reviled for underperformance. The New York Yankees recently committed more than $470 million to just three new players. That’s about three times all the dollars paid in bonuses by AIG last year.

The demand curve is very different in baseball, a spectator sport played by rare athletes with exceptional skills, and whatever happens to the Yankees is very unlikely to affect my retirement fund. Many of the speculators who were once the home-run hitters of finance have been dispatched to the minor leagues where they can whiff at curve balls with little ill effect, though some took a lot of money with them.

I could never hit a major league curveball (or write a hedged derivative contract) so I’m out of luck there. The worst I’ll ever do is voluntarily pay at the Yankee turnstiles, where management bids according to the talent available and what it thinks the market will bear. This year the Yankees figure that’s up to $2,625 for a single game seat and the right to cheer the properly-compensated .306 hitter, boo the overpaid .255 hitter and watch heroes emerge from statistics over the course of three hours.

There’s a free market for you.

In a time when business is not fond of intangibles, you’d expect it would do the obvious and look for better ways to legitimize and reward job performance for its own sake. I think it’s going to be a big topic going forward, even if it's not easy and not always fair.

And if the economy has put a ceiling on a lot of people’s hard work, my old boss’s wisdom has generally held true over the years. You know there’s always room for talent. You make your deal at the door and let the adjustments take care of themselves. You look for a valuable goal and try to make its metrics known. You remember that your life is more important than your job.

But if I ever figure out a way to write a book that will sell for $2,600 per copy, I’m outta here.