Opinion: The Meaning of Money

Over the past decade, industry salaries have been on a roller-coaster ride. This year's survey data shows a return to level ground, which makes this a good time to re-evaluate how we think about money. It seems our love affair with lucre has developed into a bit of a dysfunctional relationship.

Now don't get me wrong. I like money as much as the next person -- and more is better -- but I'm concerned that we may have created some misconceptions about its meaning.

As a manager and consultant, I have noticed that few issues elicit as much emotion from technical staffs as salary. For a bunch of folks who typically eschew emotion, we can get really worked up about money. I've seen more tears and screaming about it than about any other managerial issue.

It's not that we're starving. Few fully employed people in the IT industry are filing for food stamps or could qualify as the working poor. And this year, with 3% pay increases, the news is not too bad. So what's it all about?

The problem is that we've allowed money to become wrapped up with a number of other issues. We use it as a tangible symbol for other intangible values.

Status. We use money as an indicator of social status. As herd animals, we really like to know where we stand in relation to our peers, and money is one key measure.

Personal worth. We use money as a symbol of how much our organizations value us. The more they pay us, the more they must feel that we are good and valuable people.

Progress. We expect that income over a career should continually rise. As we progress, so should our value and commensurate compensation.

Fairness. Most important, we use money as a gauge of the organization's fairness. We compare the value we deliver and expect to be reasonably compensated. We estimate the value that we add compared with our peers and expect that each should be compensated according to his relative contribution.

So frequently, when technical people, uncomfortable with squishy emotional things, feel undervalued, unloved, abused or unfairly treated, they complain about money. It's the safe, concrete way to express what they don't like. It's easy to say, "Bob does a worse job than I do but is paid better. That's not fair." It's hard to say, "Why don't you respect me and my contribution as much as you do Bob's?" But they are really the same thing.

And that's where the problem comes in. Money's not really about any of those things.

In aggregate, how much we get paid is not a function of our moral worth but of supply and demand. The ups and downs of salary numbers are based less on the value we deliver to the organization and more on the fluctuations of the market for people with our talents.

During the boom years of the '90s, I hired young college graduates at salaries in excess of twice the average income for a family of four in the U.S. When they asked me for career advice, I'd always tell them the same thing: "Save your money." And they would look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.

"You don't get paid this much because you're morally superior to the janitor. It's just a matter of supply and demand, and at some point, things will change. Don't build a lifestyle around the assumption that you will always make more. In fact, if you think about it, if the company had to lose one person, a young programmer or the janitor, whom do you think we'd miss first?"

As the market for technical skills continues to globalize, we need to get clear about what money really means. And perhaps more important, we need to get better at expressing our feelings about worth and values and fairness separately from the symbol to which we've grown so accustomed.

Paul Glen helps technical organizations to grow better leaders and managers to perform at their best. He is the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks. Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

Special Report

2005 Salary Survey

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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