The Fifth Type of Work

Dylan N Evans
5 min readMar 18, 2022


This is a continuation of a previous article.

A year ago, I was discussing The Phoenix Project and unplanned work with a non-IT friend. He is an Optimizer like me and was pre-convinced of all these ideas. He suggested a fifth type of work: Performative Work. Performative Work is work you do not because it benefits your customer or your team, but to improve the perceptions of the people around you.

There is a fundamental assumption in the Phoenix Project: that everyone is motivated to deliver value. This is far from true in the real world, especially at old and large companies — a lot of people don’t actually care. Maybe their priority is just pleasing people, or maybe it’s to punch a clock and do as little as possible, or maybe they want status and power. Any of these goals can yield Performative Work if culture and incentives at your organization don’t address it.

Performative Work can show up in a lot of ways: changing something just to be able to say you helped, attending meetings just to be involved, talking about how great you are, or saying positive platitudes to be thought of as a leader.

Performative Work is often unexamined; many people do it without realizing it. If you see it, recognize that it may be automatic, and approach it as a learning or growth opportunity.

Some people also have rationalized that it’s a necessary component to delivering value. To a degree, this is true: you must operate within the culture of the organization you find yourself in to succeed. Consider dress codes: if you worked at IBM in the 70s, you needed to wear a suit and tie every day (I’m generalizing to men’s dress because IBM didn’t hire a lot of women in the 70s).

There is absolutely no correlation between ability and what style of fabric is currently adorning your body. However, the culture at IBM prioritized suits so much that if you didn’t wear one, it would negatively impact your peers and bosses’ perception of your competence. They would then devalue your work, effectively limiting your ability to contribute.

You can play this game with any other indicator: race, gender, accent, name, caste, and haircut have all been widely used as proxies for effectiveness, intelligence, approach, and expertise. They are all absurd but are realities of our world. If you are in a culture that associates some unrelated indicator with competence, you may need to adjust yourself to avoid barriers for your success. If you can’t, recognize that your ability at this organization is limited, it’s not reflective of your value as a person, and you should consider applying your talents somewhere else.

Note : I recognize that for some, moving is not a real choice because the associations are endemic within industries and societies. We shall overcome.

If your culture values leaders for their ability to self-promote, you may need to spend time on that, just to avoid the associated perception of incompetence which results in actual inability to add value.

An Important Exception: Sales and Marketing

Marketing and Sales educate customers about the value you offer. This is important: people won’t use you if they don’t understand why they should. Creating perceptions within customers is their primary goal, and you want to hire people talented at that. In other words, people who are good at Performative Work.

This is an old problem, and successful sales teams universally deliver by doubling down on the numbers. Sales compensation is notoriously tied to metrics: deals closed, margin on those deals, etc. They have realized that in an environment rife with self-promotion, the only way to succeed is to take away all such opportunity, and direct that talent outward to the customers.

Marketing has come late to the same place. For decades, it was difficult to gauge the performance of marketing campaigns or teams. Recent advances in data processing make accurate marketing metrics possible. This is the biggest use case for Big Data: measuring the impact of large campaigns and incremental changes to message. Ecommerce is a great example: it relies on metrics such as organic search and SEO scoring, conversion rates, average revenue per transaction, and add-on click rate. TV ad effectiveness is still hard to measure, but hard data have taken over the marketing world just like it did sales.

The Problem

The lesson is clear: even within teams dedicated to Performative Work, it is unhelpful when directed internally.

Clearly, Performative Work is a drain on an organization. It’s even worse for an organization’s efficiency than suit-wearing or sexism. Mandatory suits annoy some people and reduce your value proposition as an employer. Deep sexism will reduce your talent pool by half, probably cost you sales, and may risk negative PR.

But a culture that encourages Performative Work may waste half its combined staff resources. If you’re a typical pragmatic CFO, that’s way worse for the books than sexism. When you add in correlated risks like gut-based decisionmaking, it can be even worse.

What do we do?

The prevalence of Performative Work may be more difficult to detect in an organization than racism, but still easy individually: ask, “what value are you trying to deliver?” anytime you suspect Performative Work. If there is no meaningful answer, you’re probably right. If the answer is weak, you can usually nail it down with the followup question, “Is that the most effective way to deliver that value?” At worst, these questions can help others recognize Performative Work. At best, they may have real answers with new and useful perspectives about perceived risks or root causes. If you ask these questions with a curious tone and frame of mind, there’s no downside and substantial benefit.

If you are a leader accountable for culture, you can set and encourage patterns that reduce Performative Work. It flourishes in places where leaders:

  • Value polish and executive presence
  • Reward yesmen and confirming leader opinions
  • discourage conflict
  • devalue alternate viewpoints from subordinates
  • avoid unpleasant realities
  • Prioritize optics over truth
  • Have a significant mismatch between what they say and what they do

Adopting the principles of Lean espoused by the Phoenix Project will reduce Performative Work. Usually, this happens by helping people focus on real priorities and metrics that reflect overall organizational success. If you’re forced to reward actual improvement, it will be harder to indulge in pleasant lies and hire people just to justify your decisions — those costs become apparent quickly and are hard to justify against objective metrics of value.

I suspect that the reverse is actually more true: that a culture of Performative Work blocks any meaningful adoption of Lean. Many businesses and organizations, attracted by the incredible advantages, embark on large Lean and Six Sigma efforts. Most fail. I suspect most fail because the key leaders that define culture are unwilling to give up their pleasant lies and confirmation bias, and that approach cascades down to everyone. Since nobody is willing to choose metrics that will expose deficiencies or prompt hard questions about value, the Lean initiative becomes a façade, going through the motions while delivering none of the value.

This story was originally published on Salty On Security.



Dylan N Evans

Talks about root causes, failure, and continuous improvement in business, cybersecurity, and day-to-day life.