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Steiger's Law

Steiger's Law:
People involved in a structure spend more time and energy maintaining that structure than in working toward its goals.
The intended context is stuff like government agencies, businesses, non-profits, unions, guilds (like the people in charge of letting you be a doctor or lawyer). That's the kind of stuff the rest of the post discusses. No applications to other areas are mentioned.

The page also suggests that, if it's a good, efficient structure, then it's 85% energy for maintenance and 15% for progress.

My first thought when reading the law was: marriage, dating relationships, friendships, families.

How much work do people put into staying friends, compared with benefitting joint activities they like? I can certainly see married people putting most of their effort into keeping the marriage together, with only a little left to accomplish anything.

In a good friendship, at first glance, it appears the majority of the effort is productive, not maintenance. Like people might go to 10 baseball games together, or have 10 BBQs, or 10 beer nights, or 10 video game playing sessions, for every time they discuss their friendship or have any kind of fight. I don't think that's rare, especially for children. So it seems a good friendship is more than 90% productive.

However, people put a lot of generic effort into learning how to get along with people. They make an effort to fit into social groups when they are alone. And while they are at a baseball game, they spend part of their time wondering about how loudly to cheer and how drunk to get. They don't want to be boring and unenthusiastic, and they don't want to be disruptive either, so they modulate their behavior. Children are still learning how to do these things and have lower expectations about their peers. Adult friends expect everything to go real smoothly since everyone should have already learned how to hang out, how to handle the situations they do together, and how to pay attention all the time.

Typical adults know how to watch for when someone else wants something but isn't saying it. They know how to offer hospitality, turn hospitality down, reoffer it, etc. They know when and how to bring a gift like wine, and how much to spend on it. They even sometimes go find a boyfriend/girlfriend so they can be invited to a couples event.

Typical adults know how to come off as normal, not weird, in the eyes of strangers, so they don't embarrass their group. They know how compromise and, often, hide the fact that they compromised so no one feels bad. They know how to have low standards – if the friend group proposes an activity, they accept unless they have a big problem with it, rather than looking for the most optimized activity. These low standards reduce conflict, which is necessary because they have very limited ability to negotiate more productive ways to spend their time.

So, yes, friend groups go do stuff most of the time. But the whole time everyone is devoting a lot of their attention to making sure things go smoothly. And when they have a meal and chat, they may well discuss any maintenance issues that have come up, such as someone being a little annoying, and maybe they shouldn't invite him next time. (Leaving someone out often seems easier to people than doing problem solving. Which is one reason people try so damn hard to fit in and not cause any problems in the first place, because if a problem does come up, they may well be fucked.)

Schools are another interesting case. How much effort goes into keeping the kids quiet and orderly, and getting them to show up to their classes on time, and getting them to do their homework, and pressuring them to learn the curriculum, and school spirit events, and administration overhead, and deciding what classes you'll take, and so on, vs. actual learning? I think the ratio is grim.

Elliot Temple on August 24, 2015

Comments (7)

"Productive" activities

I agree the attention at and leading up to activities you call productive is way more focused on maintenance issues than most people realize.

But I also think lots of supposed "productive" activities friends / lovers / family members do together aren't productive at all; the whole thing is just a maintenance activity.

You mentioned the example of ball games. Why do people go with friends to ball games? Some are actually interested in the game - they'd watch it alone but watching it with someone else maybe has advantages like the other person might see something important you missed and be able to comment on it. So for those people, I suppose we might legitimately consider going to a ball game with a friend as a productive activity.

But I also think some, perhaps most, people go to the game only because it's an excuse to *spend time with* whoever they're going with. They wouldn't go alone. They're just looking for some excuse to be together, and the ball game fits. Or beer drinking. Or BBQs. Maybe not so much with video games - I don't know.

Why do things for the reason of spending time with someone else? I think it's cuz they want to keep the friendship, and they know that doesn't happen if you don't spend time together. So, why do they care about keeping the friendship?

Only after this second level of indirection, and if someone will be especially honest in their answer, do we actually start to find the "productive" activities: They want someone to discuss important problems with, someone to bail them out if they end up in jail, someone they can trust to pick their kids up at school when their car broke down. That kinda stuff.

And what is the proportion of THAT truly productive stuff to the "spending time together" stuff (which is actually maintenance)? I think it's pretty low for most people.

So people spend a low percentage of attention on the productive aspects of the productive activities they do with friends / lovers / family. AND a low proportion of activities they do with friends / lovers / family are actually productive activities. So I think the ratio is grim there too.

PAS at 7:23 PM on August 24, 2015 | #2552
PAS, I think you have good points in general.

I never went to many sports games. But I'd e.g. meet my friend and play frisbee, which I liked. Or meet my friend and play computer games. I did stuff like that long before knowing philosophy. I thought that was good, and that stuff like that was the primary productive purpose of the friendships. Of course I did also play computer games alone a lot, and would have been happy to practice frisbee with a robot sometimes (so like equivalent partner for throwing and catching, cuz u can't frisbee alone very well). There are advantages with a friend like you can discuss frisbee throwing technique and exchange tips and spot mistakes the other guy makes, and with computer games u can brainstorm and discuss strategies together.

maybe i overestimated how much other people going to sports games, or whatever, was stuff they actually wanted, rather than a means to an end. i didn't give it much thought. superficially it looks like pursuing their hobbies in a way kinda equivalent to me playing frisbee or computer games with a friend.

For my friendships I have in mind right now, which I don't consider super atypical (especially for young people), the large bulk of the time and interactions were at least superficially the productive stuff. (As to the underlying reality of those interactions, I've always been kinda anti-social. Don't want to go into detail though.)

Elliot at 7:38 PM on August 24, 2015 | #2553
"Leaving someone out often seems easier to people than doing problem solving."

How is leaving them out not solving the problem?

Anonymous at 1:00 AM on August 25, 2015 | #2554
If you're leaving Bob out cuz he makes rude jokes, that doesn't solve the rude joke problem.

If no one misses anything good about Bob, and Bob doesn't mind being left out, and Bob just hangs out more with people who already like his jokes instead, then you've solved the important, relevant problem.

It often doesn't work that way. Bob has a bad time being left out. People miss having some parts of Bob around. Unsolved problems with this kinda thing are common.

Elliot at 9:06 AM on August 25, 2015 | #2556

Discusses the relevant topic, "how do y'all married bros prevent conversations from being insufferably boring?"

AutoAdmit is brutally honest as usual.

Elliot at 9:30 AM on August 25, 2015 | #2558
If Bob has this thing that makes him unpleasant (even if he has some good things) why shouldn't the people ditch him and find someone better?

If Bob has a bad time because his friend group ditched him, that seems like his problem not theirs. He picked an unsuitable friend group and/or he did things that were unpleasant. It's his responsibility to learn about that and do something about it (or find a friend group that don't have a problem with it, or live in isolation, or whatever).

Anonymous at 2:44 AM on August 26, 2015 | #2561
> If Bob has this thing that makes him unpleasant (even if he has some good things) why shouldn't the people ditch him and find someone better?

Well, maybe they should. I didn't say that. If they do, Bob's problem isn't solved. Leaving is a different thing than resolving the problem that was happening. And lots of people have problems. You gotta solve some problems, not always leave. (Sometimes leaving is OK, sure.)

Elliot at 8:09 AM on August 26, 2015 | #2563

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)