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How to keep someone with you forever (issendai.livejournal.com)
372 points by alfredp on Sept 9, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 95 comments

It's depressing how much of that matches up with personal experience.

My first job right out of school had points 1 through 9 covered. It was only when I managed to get out that I realized I was right on the edge of a burnout. After leaving I felt like a weight was lifted off of me and I could breathe again. It felt like I had been holding my breath for months.

I was lucky because on top of 1 through 9 they also massively underpaid so when someone else came along offering nearly twice as much for more interesting work (which never materialized but that's another story) it was easier to jump ship. 500-1000$ bonuses a few times a year will let you massively underpay naive people for quite a long time.


The one point that I've seen at every single job I've ever had is a combination of "Things will be better when..." and "Keep real rewards distant.". The former is almost always used as a justification for reneging on vague allusions to future bonuses, promotions, team or personal growth or whatever.

I've grown cynical enough that anything promised (though it's rarely a promise, it's usually more of a comforting insinuation) for more than a month in the future I assume will never materialize. I'm almost always right.

Sounds like a cynical old guy (I'm one of those). But probably, delayed gratification is a sign of maturity not naivete.

So how to tell the difference between legitimate delayed reward, and smoke? Trust I guess

There are several differences, and yeah, I am all too familiar with jobs and girlfriends like this.

First difference, is delayed gratification is something I choose for myself; it's not driven onto me.

Second is that when I choose delayed gratification, I choose it based on rational, observed reasons to expect the result, not a promise from someone who hasn't demonstrated trustworthiness. Trust is based on past performance. Blind trust is faith, which I leave to religions.

Third is that choosing delayed gratification is a sign of maturity when the end benefit is a bonus, not when it's someone taking the rock off your back. When the "better times ahead" means simply not having crap shoveled over you each day, it's not maturity to delay jumping out of the septic tank.


Actually, I think this kind of thing is more common now than twenty years ago. Not it didn't exist but now the techniques have become more polished.

I'd say this has been around for thousands of years. Cults and religion have these undertones built into their belief systems.

what, do people think about the ethics of a manager using the 'intermittent rewards' part in the form of unpredictable bonuses over and above regular salary (which would be regular) with the intent of harnessing the addictive nature of intermittent rewards, without using the rest of these things (which clearly cross the line into unethical.)

I'm considering implementing a bonus plan... and the question is, do I make them predictable, based on measurable stuff that I share? or do I add some randomness? do I assign them based on my own shifting perceptions? (the sort of people I hire are going to be better at manipulating the set rules than manipulating my perceptions... This is not true for all employees.)

Furthermore, would it still work if I used a predictable bonus schedule that included some random input... e.g. the chance of getting the bonus is, say, some metric based on increases in revenue or profit multiplied by a random value between 0 an 1 or something?

Personally, I would avoid a bonus system entirely. The latest happiness study I've seen showed that a bonus system is a net loss. The system existing sets expectations, which means you have 3 possibilities: exceed, meet or don't meet expectations. If you meet expectations then nothing changes, the employee got what they expected. If you surpass expectations then the employee gets very happy and works even harder! For about a week.

However, if you don't meet expectations then you cause disappointment, resentment, etc. And if the employee is unhappy this can affect other employees (poor attitudes are infectious). Disappointment is tricky and will be made even worse by your proposed semi-random reward schedule [1].

Personally, I prefer the safer route of skipping any tit for tat scenarios (e.g. "if you do X you might get Y at some point in the future").

[1] With the semi-random schedule there is the additional risk that the employee completed something they thought was a big deal, but you didn't or didn't even know about it. Disappointment by not acting on something you weren't aware of.

>Personally, I prefer the safer route of skipping any tit for tat scenarios (e.g. "if you do X you might get Y at some point in the future").

Well, you can pretend that employment is not a tit for tat scenario... but it is. even with a flat salary, you do what I want, and I might give you a raise. You don't do what I want, and I might fire you. There is really no getting around that.

Now, the discussion here is "should we maximize or minimize those tit for tat aspects of the employee/employer relationship"

>With the semi-random schedule there is the additional risk that the employee completed something they thought was a big deal, but you didn't or didn't even know about it. Disappointment by not acting on something you weren't aware of.

This seems like a very important concern that any bonus system would have to account for in order to be successful.

One way to approach it is to tie the bonuses to company revenue, which is easily measured, and in a company this small, fairly easily moved by even one person. (now as we add more people, it might work less well, as one person might feel like they are carrying other less productive employees... but right now, it's me, the owner, and one full-time employee, so I don't think I'd have those problems.)

I think tying it to total company revenue performance (maybe with a random multiplier or on unpredictable dates? that would be the manipulative part that may or may not be insulting and bad.) would mitigate a lot of the problems you mention of feeling jilted... I mean, you can argue about how hard you worked, or about how brilliant you are, but you can't argue about how much money came in.

I think the bonus system can be very effective at preventing turn-over for the better part of the year. If you just hang on a few more months you get that big bonus!

It is good at lock in ("sheesh, I've been here for 8 months, I've only got 4 to go. If I leave I could be leaving $20k on the table"), especially since bonus payouts are often months after hearing the number so you've already began earning the next one before you get your current one paid.

The problem is, when you get that "big" bonus and it's not big then you can't help but be disappointed. I recently saw a company lose about 5 key people at one time because of the disappointment caused by this. Before bonus time those people were happy with their job and even their pay. But they all got nice bonus the year before.

In my estimation, that's 5 people they lost by a non-existent problem they created themselves.

I call that doing it wrong. When you are hiring, you need to promote the bonus as part of the salary, and make sure you pay most of it, even if tough times. You can skip the raise, but don't skip the bonus. That is penny-wise, pound foolish.

At my company, bonuses are based on a standardized bonus earnings target. The target is unpublished, but the company keeps people updated on the approximate chance of the bonus meeting certain percentage benchmarks. Keeps people from being unpleasantly (or pleasantly) surprised by too great a degree.

When bonuses are paid out this way, I see them more as a way to sort of vary compensation based on market health, while still guaranteeing a fixed salary. They're performance incentives inasmuch as employees are compensated based partly on performance and partly on how well the industry is doing, making compensation market-driven in a loose sort of way.

Disappointment might be mitigated if you use small, unexpected bonuses, e.g. "$100 for whoever fixes the most bugs in the next 2 days!", "Free dinner at Bennigans for whoever can fix this bug that's been nagging us for weeks!"

hm. especially if i don't announce it but spring it unexpectedly, this would be a cheap way to test the theory.

hey, so I talked to my employee about this, and he echoed the concerns in your footnote, and he says "I can't imagine trying for a random bonus" - and it's really his opinion that matters here.

You could tie the bonuses to profits. Problem is, your employees might game the system by making the company more profitable!

Yup, that's what I'm thinking. I mean, its one employee and me, so if we are doing well, he probably deserves something anyhow.

"Problem is, your employees might game the system by making the company more profitable!"

How does this work? How's this a bad thing? Do you refer to figure manipulations which I believe as CEO you should be aware of?

I thought he might be at first. On reflection I think the statement is ironic (and well expressed).

Bonus systems start out great, get delayed/forgotten/neglected or become haphazard -they take real work to do right!

And then people get disillusioned and surly. Annual review is hard enough already - I'd say do that right, pay everybody as well as you can afford, and leave it at that.

It doesn't need to be that random on your side of things. It just needs to be unexpected/unpredictable by the subject getting the reward, but in some way paired with the performance you want to elicit more of. Think of gambling, the reward is very predictable if you know the seed values and underlying algorithms, but unpredictable from the gamblers perspective.

This is a classic Variable Ratio (VR) schedule of reinforcement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinforcement#Schedules_of_rein...).

To get the highest rates of responding, you don't want to tie it to a known schedule, that would instead be some sort of fixed or variable interval schedule, which isn't anywhere near as reinforcing as a variable ratio one.

It should be possible to get multiple bonuses within a short period of time, as long as the desired metrics are being hit. That way, you'll continue to get strong behavior throughout the entire period rather than bursts of behavior as the end of the period nears (rather than the scalloping that you see on the wikipedia graphs).

hm. interesting.

Now, the first question I need to ask is "is this crossing a line" - is it too manipulative... then, if it's not, I need to come up with a bonus scheme.

I was thinking about basing the bonuses on how much revenue has grown past our previous high. (with the number of employees, one guy can really make a big difference, and if we are operating properly, we grow by around 10-15% a month.)

hm. It seems I could pay out on random days on a month that beats the previous months receipts? I think I'd want it to be a 'peak month' rather than a 'peak day' to discourage gaming, I mean, I see how you could queue up customers for a few days... doing this over months could be bad, especially if when the months begin changes randomly.

But yeah, a formula that people can know, with, perhaps, random numbers that aren't known until the period end sounds like the way to go. I think people would mind the manipulation less if it was clear what I was doing and why.

If your employees are willing to shift revenue/etc to fuck with the bonus plan, you've already lost.

As a general policy I try to make being straight with me more profitable than not being straight... e.g. if a customer brings to my attention a mistake I made in their favour, I nearly always let them keep it.

Yeah, I don't want dishonest employees... but I also don't want my honest employees to feel like they could do better by being dishonest. even if they are honest people who will continue to be honest, it breeds discontent.

"If somebody is investing time, resources, and energy into convincing you of your own worthlessness, that same somebody has revealed to you that they have a lot to lose if you don’t believe them. They’re protecting their own loss of power."

From related article: http://www.fugitivus.net/2010/06/10/on-interpersonal-badness...

(un?)Suprisingly, his four rules of the 'sick system' lay out a pretty good groundwork for social games and MMORPGs.

Right. Name ONE "social game" that is really social - involves personal interaction, trust, risking yourself for others. How many are creative, social AND cooperative? How many could survive lifting the "no aggression rule" for city centers without devolving into anarchy?

That term is the biggest double-speak of this decade - "Social Gaming" operates on OCD/addictive personality snaring, pyramid schemes and plain greed.

My last YC app was to try to reinvent this paradigm. Not convincing enought I guess.

This sounds too much like life in academia as a post-graduate student. It hit too close to home... too close.

The OP responds in the comments:

"Universities are famous for it: small departments filled with people who are expected to spend their entire lives there, with tiny, tiny rewards at stake, a system of recognition that relies on self-promotion, and no chance that any obviously pathological co-worker is going to be shuffled out the door within the next decade. The pressure and pathology can be hideous, and that gets passed on to the students. I can see how the same setup could happen in any school with low staff turnover."

As someone who recently left a PhD program, I have to agree with you.

Ha, same here buddy. What department were you in?

I'm still in it... I'm a Ph.D. candidate in Distributed Systems, virtualization, Cloud Computing and so on.

Everything fits perfectly. I always wonder if I'm employing my time properly in academia. But they keep me too busy to think about it deeper. Research also keeps anyone tired, too much time dealing with the same problem, lacking some fresh air once in a while to breathe. We are emotionally involved with the work, loyalty and devotion and so on. Intermittent rewards when some of your articles are accepted... And the real awards are distant, the Ph.D. itself.

Well I hope you make it and don't become like the academics surrounding you.

Thanks! I'm seriously thinking on finishing my Ph.D. and getting out of the university. The university is full of huge egos (with very few exceptions), and people are very hard to deal on a daily basis. There are hard people everywhere (I've worked on the software industry before, I know them), but in the university this is the rule. Also, as you predicted, I'm afraid I may become like them.

"I'm afraid I may become like them" was a big factor for me leaving academia - I was starting to play all the silly games that drove me mad when I joined.

Also known as how to spot a dysfunctional work environment! Lots of good advice in there, especially if you've never experienced cube-land first hand.

I wonder how many people are filing this under "useful but morally grey", versus "i need to quit my job and fill out a YC app"?


This sounds like many startups, too.

That's what I was thinking.

It sounds much more like startups to me than cubes. The emotional attachment, the promotion of the lack of work/life boundaries, the deadlines or the company dies and the world implodes, all features of startups, not really cubes.

(They have their own massive set of dysfunctional features.)

Nah, there are plenty of large tech companies that are run by sociopaths, with bad work/life balance, etc. At least at a startup, there is a small chance you'll get rich, or meet some productive people.

Yep. :\

filed under "useful but morally grey." It makes me wonder though would people be satisfied? It seems that there is always something shinning but you are not to grasp it ever. I don't think I could work this way if I were in such situation I would probably quit. I do understand though that there are constraints that keep such mechanism at work, but what can we do about it?

It's even easier to do all of this to yourself.

I find my Chinese government is doing exactly what the article says. Especially on Rule #1 and #2. Most of the Chinese people have to work hard for 20-30 years to pay the house debt. Chinese economic has grown at the speed of 10% for many years from the government report. It has to grow like this at least another ten years. Or there will be a disaster. Workers will lose their jobs. The bank will take back the houses. Then most of them will feel like they get nothing in all their lives.

How is this different from how it is in the west?

Work hard to pay off the house (or to save to buy a house), an economical crisis that doesn't seem to end no matter the company profits. Etc...

I do agree that this does happen in large companies but its not done intentionally by the founder of the company. Rather when your organisation starts to grow it eventually succumbs to becoming this kind of system.

Sometimes the government will give you the perfect carrot-stick combo - the green card! For the longest time I never understood why american citizens would actually put up with the stuff I see going on in the office month to month.

Also, even these systems are gameable because there is so much randomness that with a little skill, you can get away with doing hardly any work and focussing on your own priorities. Of course you have to trade in the possibility of promotion etc but you'll get the occasional semi-big reward thats doled out to everyone :) ...

see also "The DENNIS System"

Demonstrate Value

Engage Physically

Nurture Dependence

Neglect Emotionally

Inspire Hope

Separate Entirely

Let us not forget the MAC system: Move in After Completion.

It reads as if my ex girlfriend wrote it, every single bit. :) I consider me lucky to be here being able to write this.

Or the CIA, explaining how to prevent a political revolution.

This is a great description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Although I haven't seen something define the mechanics of the relationship so well. The real question is, why would you want to keep people trapped in a failing system? It has to do with the the aggressors own fears of inadequacy.

Also, if you find yourself a victim of this type of relationship, usually there is something that you need to fix about yourself. Seek good professional help. Otherwise you risk "escaping" into an identical situation. A healthy person would probably run at the first signs.

Honest question: Why does this article resonate so much and has over 200 upvotes as of now? Is this really such a wide-spread phenomenon?

Can't one detect such behaviour very fast and get out of the rollercoaster before any damage is done?

Cults can last for centuries, and ensnare millions.

revisor, the psychopath/sociopath discovers your algorithm for detecting evil behavior and self compensates. So your notion of "just avoid the bad behavior" doesn't really work. The roller coaster example is an incorrect analogy because the roller coaster is not smart enough to change itself to thwart your negative evaluations.

That's how all governments work. Keep your citizens as disheveled as possible and they won't know what hit them during election time.

This is so good.

I'm sure if you just push yourself a little harder you can get past this current crisis and everything will be ok.

Weird, I know of a couple of web communities/businesses that work like this. Some astute members have even noted that they work like a dysfunctional relationship... here it is all laid out like a game plan.

The other way to do this is being part of solid, established social system.

That's what kept employees, husbands and wives together in the US fifty years ago or I'd imagine in Japan twenty years. It's not just that the situation asks you to stay but that everything outside the immediate situation also asks you to stay.

But I'd agree this is what will work in a climate of overwhelming atomization and choice. Makes you really think...

Video Games Development is done exactly like that :)

It's a bit spooky when an article/link you've read a while back turns up on the front page of HN with quite some discussion around it.

Especially because the link is the :visited colour, and you have to go there just to confirm that what you'd read before remains the same :)

I think King Arthur had the last word on this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7ZUibOUX28

He was the Joel Spolsky of the Middle Ages, I'm telling you.

Nitpick: If there was a actual historical character who was anything like "King Arthur" he lived a long time (probably about 600 years) before the first accounts of him written in the Middle Ages.

Also, if Arthur really had been the Joel Spolsky of ancient Britain his knights would never have sat at a big round table, except during lunch. Rather, they would have each had an individual round table in a glass-walled soundproof office with a door that could close.

Nitpick: Nitpicking the historical accuracy of a reference to a '50s musical is a little nitpickier than average. (Next you're going to tell me the Jellicle Cats aren't really coming out tonight…!)

But yes, point taken. :)

A good nitpick. I'm definitely on the 'Arthur as fiction' side of the debate. The first proper account of 'King Arthur' was from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first half of the twelfth century; historical details place that Arthur in the late sixth century.

Ignoring the accuracy of a tale told more than five hundred years after the event, if Arthur was real and such an important figure, why did the Venerable Bede fail to mention Arthur at all during his remarkable (for the 'dark ages') history of Britain in the ninth century? /nitpick

Bede's was not a history of a homogeneous socio-political people, and Arthur, if he was any kind of early mediaeval king, was certainly not King of all Britain. The island was politically fragmented. Record keeping was poor. The very exceptionality of Bede's history would be one reason for its incompleteness. And wikipedia, at the time, was notoriously unreliable.

True, but Bede's history was wide-ranging and made no mention of Arthur or any other elements of his legend.

To the extent that Arthur could have been real, he likely would have been a warrior-leader, rather than a king, fighting against the spreading Anglo-Saxon invaders.

Wasn't Bede very much on the side of the, ultimately largely victorious, Anglo-Saxon invaders?

This seems like pretty twisted advice if you ask me. Maybe the only redeeming thing in the post is understanding power-hungry people so you don't fall for their traps. Though that's a bit depressing because sometimes what you study "to try to avoid" is what you become. <rant>As an example, some people study all the bad crap going on in the world, and they do it all the time. They study the power-brokers in high places doing shady deals. They look deeply into conspiracies -- some of which are probably true. They look at the deep and dark parts of the world; always justifying with things like, "if I don't understand these things how can I be a part of the solution?" Sometimes they get sucked in though to all the crap and they become some of the most depressing, annoying people. While it's true that you need to understand the dark parts of the system in order to fix them, it's important to remember balance.</rant>

edit: I suppose the relationship version of my example is those who are afraid to trust others and have happy relationships because they are focused on the dark and scary things that have happened to them in the past by those who have taken this post's advice and other similarly poor advice, or bad things that they've heard have happened to others, etc. Reminds me of something attributed to Shakespeare, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one.” It's almost always better to look at the bright side, because you will probably end up having a few great relationships, than to look at the negative, and definitely have none. Easier said than done....

I'm fairly certain you've read this with the incorrect tone.

While it is written as a how-to-abuse type guide, the tone clearly shows it to be a how-to-avoid-abuse-and-recognize-it guide.

Wonder how much of that just corresponds to being alive? Intermittent rewards, keeping you busy, being tired, emotionally involved, crises occur --- perhaps much of this is just a fact of life and not intentional on the part of others? Yes, you can intentionally do this to people. But can't it also just be a natural part of existence?

Have you considered that maybe you are stuck in a system that the author is describing? "Intermittent rewards, keeping you busy, being tired, emotionally involved, crises occur" is absolutely not a description of life. It describes some of my worst weeks, but I think I'd go insane if my life was like that all the time.

It depends on what is the cause of the crises. If it's one person or organization, you have the situation described in the article. If it's just all the things around you (your wife leaves you, your car breaks down, and so on), all at the same time, then it's life, I guess.

I have posted this before in here, but it seems fitting to do it again in here:


That sounds exactly like what I wrote about in 'the start-up from hell the other week'. Uncanny.

Seems like it would take a lot more energy to be manipulative than it would be to excel at something.

It only seems that way. Sometimes being manipulative is easier than trying to excel (otherwise we'd see more people doing well

But in order to keep that person you have to make a chaotic environment. Who wants to deliberately have crushing debt?

It's more like if you're already a loser, you can use some of that to your advantage by dragging someone else down with you.

But a lot less ability!

Manipulative people are highly optimized for it. Like the way your graphics card can do matrix operations without breaking a sweat that would bring your main processor to its knees.

Depends on your talents.

Sounds like emotional slavery and a recipe for future prozac customers.

Scary how similar to a cult the process runs.

sounds like democracy

The advice is great on both fronts wish I read it about 10 years ago. Really bad work places and a really bad relationship, it works even better when you're doing both at the same time. Lesson learned, you can't save the world, shitty people and shitty companies will always be so, the key is to move on and surround yourself with great people both in business and in life.

It's really the same effect in both cases, they always threaten to fire you / leave and when you say OK, they beg you to stay. The crazy part is how effective it really is. I think the article really best describes sociopathic behavior. At least it only really takes about a year to recover from it all.


Wow. After reading the OP's article and your follow up link... gah.

This hits terribly close to home in my recent (though now past) life.

Glad to be (largely) free of that though, these days.


Is spooky right-on, for 4 years of my work I had a co worker who was a psychopath/sociopath the entire time and I hadn't realized, he fit EVERY one of these items. Read these items, print it out and tape it on your wall.

lawyers were involved, turns out the sociopath was being manipulated by an even greater sociopath. These people are the people you find blackmailing you to derail your career permanently for financial gain.

Your link reeks of Wikipedia-esque POV. It reads like someone who's been hurt by a sociopath. On a scientific level, I might argue that something is "wrong with them" as the article states. These seem like prevalent enough traits to serve some evolutionary purpose, however much our culture despises and may be harmed by them.

Apple. LOL

Duct tape works too.

Pray together. The rest will follow.

You might want to read the article before commenting next time :) While praying together might be legitimate advice (for couples who share the same spirituality) - it has no relevance to the article in question (Which is about how to manipulate others - making them dependent on you)

Religiosity and marital satisfaction don't seem to have any statistically significant correlation. This suggests that praying together probably won't do what you expect it to, on average.

Citation needed =)

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