David R. Henderson  

Don't Let Your Boss Hold You Back

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One of the most-powerful pieces of advice that Dwight R. Lee and Richard B. McKenzie give in their book, Getting Rich in America: 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life, is: Don't Let Your Boss Hold You Back.

I reviewed their book positively in the Wall Street Journal in 1999, but didn't have room to cover this. They give an example of Richard McKenzie buying his own PC in 1980--he was one of the first. The price, in 1999 $, was $12,000. But McKenzie calculated that his added productivity, in books and articles written, would be well in excess of $12K. McKenzie, by the way, has always been an early adopter of technology. I remember seeing him at a Liberty Fund conference in Charlotte in about 1988 and he had one of the latest laptops. He was getting a lot of work done on airplanes. I'm guessing that he bought that himself too.

I have my own story, much less dramatic, because the dollars were much less, but, still, a story that makes the point.

In about August 1985, my employer-bought computer broke down. The reason wasn't a mystery: its power supply failed. A new one would cost about $130. The problem: under the federal government's budget rules, I had passed the deadline to buy a power supply that fiscal year. I would have to wait until October 1. That would have meant over 6 weeks of much less output. I went to the computer store immediately and bought my own.

So my suggestion: look around your workplace and figure out items that would raise your productivity. After you have asked your boss to fund them, if the boss says no, then do a cost/benefit analysis: are the rewards to you greater than the cost to you. You might be surprised about how often the answer is "Yes."

UPDATE: There's a way I follow this advice now that I didn't even think to mention because it has become so second-nature. When I want a book for something I'm writing on, which happens a lot, I can often get it through Interlibrary Loan. But that takes a few days and I can't mark it up. So I often get on Amazon and find a used copy, order it, and get it in a few days. Sometimes I even get it faster than with Interlibrary Loan. And, with shipping, I've usually paid under $10. I probably spend $200 or $300 a year this way.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ron Ronson writes:

Great advice. And if they don't improve productivity sufficiently to be worthwhile but do improve your job satisfaction they should still be considered.

drobviousso writes:

My firm gives most employees a $500 a year fund to buy anything we can argue is good for our productivity. Most people use it to buy cell phones and data plans, but I've seen it used for special printers, scanners, tablets, conference attendance, subscriptions to specialized publications, self directed education, etc.

It is very liberating. I used it to purchase a third monitor a year ago. Best productivity move I've ever made.

IVV writes:

Although I agree that making investments that improve productivity are valuable and worth doing, no matter what your boss says, it has been my experience that your increased productivity usually results in very little gain accruing to yourself. In the case that improved productivity results in improved personal results, then yes, that's a good idea, but then you've got a good boss who won't hold you back in any case.

If your boss would hold you back, then chances are your boss would impair gains accruing to you as a result of your independent productivity gains.

Ted Levy writes:

Any thoughts on the perverse incentives following such advice creates for bosses?

blighter writes:

I would happily spend not inconsiderable money fulfilling my own IT needs even if it didn't help my productivity simply because I spend hours each day dealing with it, making it better, faster, more specified to my own style would make it a more pleasant experience even if it didn't improve my productivity -- though I suspect it would do that too. And having a more pleasant experience for a significant portion, if not an outright majority of my waking hours is worth something to me. Worth a fair bit, actually.

Sadly, my every suggestion to that effect has been met w/ a resounding no. My own faster, better hardware? No, IT doesn't/can't/won't support it & we only allow supported devices on the corporate network. Second monitor? No, we can't have only you buying yourself better equipment, it would disrupt morale in the department. Not to mention the unbelievably outmoded software we're still using.

Don't even get me started on the hoops I had to jump through to get myself a file to work on at home over a weekend once-upon-a-time. You'd think they'd be thrilled that I was so taken w/ the task & full of ideas on it that I didn't want to wait 2 days to get to it but apparently allowing anything but minuscule attachments to flow to outside email addresses would make IT's life more difficult -- and having an easy life for IT is apparently one of the more significant purposes of our IT infrastructure.

Ah, the many-faceted glories of working in a large corporate environment...

Tom West writes:

I tend to enjoy maximizing my productivity enough that it's personally worth it to buy extra hardware (second or third monitor, video card to support it, more RAM) out of my own money.

And yes, I have to admit that my opinion of some of the large companies I've occasionally worked for has taken a big hit when it became absolutely clear that not making waves by using extra hardware was vastly preferable to maximizing productivity.

Of course, I'd like to claim that they'd eventually have their lunch eaten by more flexible small companies, but these were some of the most stable, profitable companies in the economy, so perhaps its they who have the right idea :-(.

(Luckily I mostly work for smaller companies that are willing to indulge my proclivities.)

Alex Godofsky writes:

I strongly suggest most people who work office jobs buy a second or third monitor. It is one of the simplest and cheapest productivity enhancers that no one who isn't a programmer or stock trader seems to do.

David writes:

I agree that a second monitor (or even a third in some cases) is a great investment even if your company doesn't provide one. I've purchased my own for work and it helps immensely.

If you use a laptop, something as simple as a mouse and keyboard (with number pad) can be great productivity boosters to keep at your desk.

I've got a used copy of Georgie Anne Geyer's 'Taking the Night Flight' in the mail for me right now. I needed it for a quote I know is in there about Salvador Allende (whom Geyer knew when they both lived in Cuba).

My local library didn't have it, buying it cost me $ .16 (and $3.99 shipping).

Also, about not letting your boss slow you down, I just came upon an interesting story about how the movie industry was born. Thomas Alva Edison invented the camera, but didn't realize its potential for making 'moving stories'.

His assistant did though, and when Edison turned him down for the money to make an 8 minute film the assistant told him he'd put up his salary as collateral. I.e. if the movie didn't recover its costs Edison could dock his pay for it.

So the movie got made--a story of a house fire and the fire department rescuing the family from it--and was a sensation. Edison went on the sell a lot of movie cameras to filmmakers. One of whom was a man named Shulberg, who had a son who later went on to write several novels and movie scripts, including What Makes Sammy Run and On the Waterfront.

Foobarista writes:

But be careful replacing computer innards in a place with unionized IT. I did that once at Lockheed - was "unofficially" popping in an ethernet card - and happened to be seen by an IT guy. He actually filed a union grievance against me; apparently, I was supposed to file paperwork and wait a month for the IT guy to show up with a screwdriver, and he'd bill someone megabux for the service.

My boss stood up for me, and pretty much said to keep doing what I was doing, but make sure nobody outside the group sees me doing it next time...

A bit of irony: I had coded the labor union grievance database as a summer-hire a few years before, and ended up with my very own record in the database...

Jim Glass writes:

it has been my experience that your increased productivity usually results in very little gain accruing to yourself....

Any thoughts on the perverse incentives following such advice creates for bosses?...

My own faster, better hardware? No, IT doesn't/can't/won't support it & we only allow supported devices on the corporate network. Second monitor? No, we can't have only you buying yourself better equipment, it would disrupt morale ...

All this depends very much on the character of one's employer, about which one does have some choice. I've been on all sides of these situations, regarding tech and personal productivity improvement.

My first job after graduating law school was at the bottom end of huge public-corporation bureaucracy, where they actually still had old-fashioned punch-in punch-out time clocks even for the attorneys and top executives. *No* return for increasing productivity there! OTOH, no penalty for long lunches and enjoying diversions during work hours either. Guaranteed lock step small wage increases whatever you did. The closest thing to a public schools teachers union in the private sector.

My second job was 180-degrees opposite -- at a small entrepreneurial start-up growing fast, with a boss-owner who'd literally started the business in his garage in his middle age, because his difficult personality made him unable to keep a job working for anyone else. Employee turnover was high, *very* high among the people the boss didn't like - and whether he liked you or not was very highly correlated with whether he thought you were making him money or not.

Just before I left the first job for the second I bought a TRS-80 Model III computer, plus a daisy wheel printer, $2,000 each, from Radio Shack. That $4,000 was about $11,000 in today's money (for 48k memory, 2MHz speed, 40-character black & white screen, typewriter-ribbon type printing, etc.) I bought it for fun and the heck of it -- no Internet, no e-mail, and not much else.

I did nothing with it for job #1, but immediately upon arriving at job #2 saw that by word processing ("Scripsit") alone I could multiply the productivity of everyone else there using IBM selectric typewriters. So I started bringing work home, doing it at night, bringing it in the next morning, relaxing during the day, and still getting more done than anyone else.

The boss asked "How the heck are you doing this?" I told him and added, "You see all that backed-up work on everybody else's desks? I can do all that too *if* you let me work at home on my own". He said, "Go! Go! Do it!" I did, watching TV in the background and so on, and came back with it all, and he was overjoyed. The raise I got paid for equipment right there -- but even better, I became the his favorite with the right to set my own hours and come and go as I pleased.

The company became very successful, grew big and developed its own bureaucracy, but I remained "the guy who sets his own hours". Though I earned it by remaining the most productive, in part (apart from actually doing my job well) by staying ahead of the business computing curve -- first with e-mail, first on the Internet (in the days of "Gopher", before search engines) first with a laptop, etc. All on my own initiative. Showing the way for others. (Fave memory: Soon after the IBM PCs came in company-wide, before the lesson to "back up" had been learned the hard way, there was a power blackout and seemingly half the company came to me asking, "our information is still going to be there, right?")

That lasted about 10 years, then I left to start my own business. My former boss, who was *really* successful now, remained a good friend and threw me a lot of work, which was a huge help starting out, plus references and referrals and the rest. His personality was never difficult with me. That TRS-80 not only paid for itself countless times over but changed my whole life. Meanwhile, employer #1 fell to a hostile takeover, was carved up and its pieces spread in the wind.

As a boss myself I learned the appropriate lesson. I tell my employees: "You buy all your own dang electronic equipment, I'm not paying for any of it! And you'd better be plenty productive with it, or you're outta here!"

Employers vary hugely. Who you work for makes a big difference, and you do have some choice in the matter.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jim Glass,
Great stories! Thanks.

Grieve Chelwa writes:

Great, great advice David! Thanks.

IVV writes:

Where do you find the employer, Jim?

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