Money can’t buy happiness, they say.
I once worked for a Fortune 500 company. I started at the bottom. I climbed the ladder and eventually got promoted to a leadership position. I was thrilled, so thrilled I came in early, stayed late, started projects, volunteered for cross-departmental teams, took on additional responsibilities. I worked really hard.
I felt good about my job. I was happy.
Then I found out another supervisor—a lazy, argumentative, culture-killing supervisor—made about 50 percent more than I did.
I became a lot less happy.
I tried to forget it. I kept telling myself all that mattered was whether I was satisfied with what I made. I kept telling myself that what others earned was irrelevant. I kept telling myself nothing had really changed.
Everything had changed, because now I knew.
To my discredit, I never got over it. I couldn’t change how much he earned, but I could change how hard I worked. To my discredit, that did change.
I still worked hard, but not that hard.
When Buffer, the social media management company, released a calculator showing how employee salaries are determined—and letting non-employees know what they would make if they joined the Buffer team—I was a little taken aback. The idea seems crazy.
Not to some. According to co-founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich, “This means that now anyone can see what they might make at Buffer by plugging in their own data for location, experience and so forth.” Judging by the response, tons of people applaud yet another of Buffer’s steps toward transparency and openness.
I still wasn’t sure, because I kept thinking about a scene in Alison Ellwood’s fantastic “History of the Eagles” about the band’s 1994 reunion.
The first time around, the band members formed a corporation called Eagles Limited, which, as Don Felder put it, “was all for one and one for all.”
When they reunited, Glenn Frey decided on a different approach. “I’m not going to do it unless Don [Henley] and I make more money than the other [three] guys,” he said. “We’re the only guys who have done anything career-wise in the last 14 years. We’re the guys that have kept the Eagles name alive on radio, [on] television and in concert halls.”
(He had a point. Frey and Henley had both scored a number of top 10 hits. The other erstwhile Eagles enjoyed less success.)
“So,” Frey said, “we came up with a deal I was happy with, Don was happy with, Timothy [B. Schmitt] was happy with, Joe [Walsh] was happy with … and Don Felder was not happy with.”
Eventually Felder agreed to the deal and the Eagles reunited, cut a new album and performed sold-out shows around the world.
Still, Frey said, “Don Felder was never ever satisfied … never ever happy. A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.
“Time went on, and Felder became more and more unhappy. He couldn’t appreciate the amount of money he was making. [He was] more concerned about how much money I was making.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened to me—or what I let happen to me.
Odd things happen when we start to compare and contrast. I had been happy with what I earned as a supervisor—until I learned what another supervisor made.
Then I was unhappy.
Yet all that had really changed was the addition of one small piece of knowledge. My pay hadn’t changed, my duties hadn’t changed, my opportunities hadn’t changed—I was the only thing that had changed.
According to Frey, the same happened with Felder. If he’d been offered the same money as a solo artist, he might have been thrilled; my guess is the amount he made reuniting with the Eagles far exceeded what he had earned in the intervening years. Yet comparisons and emotions apparently colored his perception. “Great” money no longer seemed so great, because it wasn’t as great as what others made.
Are comparative salaries a real issue to some people? Absolutely—especially when we compare our relative compensation with the relative output of others.
That’s why I used to think it’s better not to know. If you like your deal, if you’re happy with your role and your level of pay, you could argue that knowing what other people make is irrelevant. You could argue that ignorance, in that case, truly may be bliss.
Now I think I’m wrong. Information is always better. Knowledge is always better. I grew up, in a professional sense, in a climate of nondisclosure and confidentiality and, well, secrets. Now I’m realizing that openness is not only better, it’s the best way to lead—because it’s the best way to build a real team.
So, hats off to Joel and Leo, if only for reminding an old dog that new tricks are often better tricks.
Maybe that’s just me. What about you? Is salary transparency a good idea or a bad idea?
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.