Getting Beyond the Dilbert Principle

When I had my first real professional job at a large health insurance company in the southeastern United States, I was living in a world like the one Scott Adams famously portrayed in Dilbert.  We had our cubicles, our interminable meetings, and all the cliches seemed to apply.  I could count on regularly hearing:

  • The Japanese use the same word for crisis and opportunity.
  • Let’s make sure we’re all singing from the same page in the hymnal.
  • I think we need to re-focus.  We may be shedding more heat than light.

We were absolutely obsessed with re-engineering the corporation.  If you are old enough, you’ll recognize that one.  We mapped out process flows like you wouldn’t believe.  In the meantime, the people whose processes we were mapping were wondering, “What are you guys doing?”  I started thinking to myself that they should be mapping their own processes and thinking for themselves how to make the processes better.

During those years, I was a devoted follower of Adams.  He was an early adopter on the web.  So, in addition to reading his comic strip and buying his books, I eagerly read his manifestos sent out via email.  I had no internet web address (only an intranet one!), so I had to read his missives when someone brought printouts from home and distributed them.

One of Adams’ persistent themes was then and is now the stupidity of managers.  Having had the chance to hear him on the Harvard Business Review podcast more than 20 years into his comic effort, I was disappointed to understand a little more about how he feels about the people who manage.  He isn’t kidding.  At all.

In the interview, he repeated his original assertion that managers are people who have been promoted so as to minimize the damage they can do.  Rather than doing real work, they will schedule meetings and “order the doughnuts.”  Pressed on this point by the interviewer, Adams stated that he supposed some managers could be really good at their jobs if they were the kind of people willing to get others to sacrifice their health and happiness to increase the profit of the corporation and to advance the career of the manager.

If I’d heard the interview 20 years ago, I probably would have just agreed with Adams and kept reading Dilbert.  But having had the time to observe some really good managers up close and even to exercise that function so as to understand the responsibility, I disagree intensely with the cartoonist.  People who lead organizations and departments within organizations certainly can be subpar.  And they can exercise authority poorly.  Being a decent manager is difficult.

But have you ever worked under a really good manager or leader?  I have.  It is absolutely glorious to be able to trust a good manager to help set out a vision of success, to coordinate the efforts of the group, to hold people accountable, and to take the lead on solving problems.  I still remember the first time I was in a really big meeting with a boss I won’t name so as not to embarrass him.  What amazed me was how interested he was in hearing ideas from others.  He didn’t care about rank or status.  He cared about the substance.  The way he conducted himself helped me to be comfortable that he would make a good decision.  And even if the decision wasn’t the one I wanted, I could take comfort in knowing that he had heard alternative points of view and seriously considered them.

The Dilbert/Adams view is a disaffected one.  It can be useful.  As Adams pointed out, more than a few managers have found a Dilbert strip left under their door.  It can work as critique.  But don’t stop there.  The complaining critic pose is one that should be used selectively lest one become cancerous rather than constructive.  Effective employees have to learn how to trust managers.  And managers have the responsibility of being worthy of that trust.

Because good management is ultimately about trust, I don’t think Adams is right to say managers are promoted to that position to minimize the damage they can do.  People are sometimes promoted beyond real management (getting kicked upstairs, as they say) to minimize the damage they can do.  The person Adams is thinking about may well have a lofty title, but will have little responsibility, especially responsibility for people and the work they do.

Jerry Brown Has Always Been Governor of California.

Jerry Brown is the governor of California.  Jerry Brown has always been the governor of California.  Jerry Brown will always be the governor of California.  California is Jerry Brown.  And Jerry Brown is California.

Though Jerry Brown’s father once appeared to be governor of California, his governorship was only apparent and only a trusteeship of sorts for the true occupant of the office, Jerry Brown.  Pat Brown could not actually execute the office belonging naturally to Jerry Brown, but he took it as a duty imposed by the universe to serve as governor until Jerry Brown could fully manifest in his gubernatorial form.

(Some may mistakenly believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger was once governor of California, but they are confused by the film Total Recall in which the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited a virtual reality shop and was there convinced that he was the governor of California.)

In due time, California will be known more properly by its true name:  Jerry Brownifornia.

Three Positions on Gay Marriage: Clarifying the Options

Option One:  Gay marriage is wrong both theologically and politically.  Neither the Jewish nor Christian faiths can be twisted into affirming it theologically.  (Andrew Sullivan agrees.)  Without male-female complementarity, politics would not even exist.  No community without that complementarity would even have a future.  Male-female marriage and childbearing are at the heart of politics.

Option Two:  Gay marriage is clearly wrong theologically.  There is nowhere for the church to go on the issue.  However, the aspirations of politics can be different than the aspirations of faith.  One possibility would be to say that adults are free persons who have to make their own moral choices and those shouldn’t be regulated when they don’t directly interfere with the lives of others.

Option Three:  We can simply make a new decision theologically about gay marriage.  Maybe we can even find a way to reinterpret sexuality within the Christian context.  We can solve the theological problem.  And politically, there is no problem.  Politics is about majorities and the new majority is moving swiftly into place.

What does it all mean for Christians?  I would suggest that faithful Christians can find themselves embracing either option one or option two, but that option three is not available to anyone with any reasonable concern for orthodoxy.  

Why the Young Don’t Respect Adults

I was raised with as great an emphasis upon respecting my elders as you can have.  This is another way of saying I was raised in the south and in the southern way.  Though I am 43 years old, I am constitutionally unable to refer to older men in authority by their first names.  The scholar Ralph Wood recently invited me to call him by his first name, I had to beg off so as not to destroy my digestion.

Nevertheless, as a teenager my pride rose up within me and my respect for older persons plummeted.  I still remember with embarrassment the time when I told my sister that we had “surpassed” mom and dad.  Happily, it was a temporary effect, but I observe it today among other young people and have wondered what is the cause of it.  

After thinking about it for some time, I think I have the answer.  When young people look at adults, they see them as fixed in their positions.  You are a secretary.  You are a teacher.  You are a vice-principal who wears out of date French cuffs to the prom.  You are managing a restaurant.  It doesn’t matter what or who you are.  Your cake is baked.  At least that’s the way the young person tends to see it.  They, on the other hand, live in a world of possibility.  In your case, we have solved for x, but in their case x remains an open question.  The young still hold out billionaire, celebrity, American Idol, and Tony Stark as possible outcomes in their own lives.  

As a result, when many young people measure themselves against adults, they compare their x versus the adult’s x and find that unknown x largely trumps defined x.  In other words, if I may be greater than you, then I’ll assume I probably am greater than you.  And if that is so, why should I respect you, listen to you, accept your authority over me, etc.?  

Respect is a matter of algebra.

A Sad Return to the Church of My Youth


When I was a young child (grade school age), my parents spent a few years at the local Episcopal church.  I was actually baptized there when my sister was christened as an infant.  (I have since been baptized as an adult after my conversion.)  Though I did not understand much about church at that time, I tended to spend the hours looking at the stained glass that filled the two long sides of the chapel.  The panel posted above is one that often caught my attention.  

Last week my father and I ventured downtown to eat at a new pizza place.  I wanted to walk around and take in the sights around my small home city.  There was the church we had attended.  We tried to get in, but the doors to the chapel were locked.  I wandered around until I found an open door.  After I explained my desire to see the inside of the chapel to the secretary, she found the priest.  He was a young guy with red hair and beard.  We went together into the small sanctuary.

The beautiful stained glass was still there.  So, too, was the rich, dark wood of the pews and the arched ceiling.  I asked if I could take some pictures.  He welcomed me to do so.  We began talking about the beauty of the church and how it aids in worship by transporting the mind toward the transcendent.  I told him my pet theory that young people will want more liturgy and worship and less emphasis on preaching because preaching is content and content is available 24-7 on your phone, in the car, while walking, etc.

It was a pleasant conversation and it was good to be in that place with a hallowed feeling.  But then he addressed the one thing I hoped he would not talk about, which has become a new gospel for many in the Episcopal church.  He talked about gay marriage, its inevitability, and our acceptance of it in the church.  I felt it was the wrong moment for him to bring that up.  Maybe he wanted to see if I knew the secret handshake.  In any case, no more time to bask in memories.  Maintaining a cheerful demeanor, I thanked him for allowing me into the chapel, and walked out into the bright sun of the spring afternoon.  

After I left, I wondered whether I should have engaged the question with him.  I could have worked through one of my hobbyhorses, which is that while there is room to talk about gay marriage in the context of politics (a libertarian turn of sorts), there is nowhere to go on the issue theologically.  I might have said with Martin Luther King, Jr. that the church must be a thermostat (something that affects the environment) rather than a thermometer (something that simply tells you what the environment is).  

But to tell you the truth, I was a little heartsick and in no mood to dispute.  

The Formerly Conservative Evangelical Progressive

The formerly conservative evangelical progressive

Is one who has mastered the art

Of perfectly pronouncing

The secular world’s conventional wisdom.

This professor

Or that promising young writer

Has received many a delightful affirmation

From all the right people

For having learned the amazing trick

Of echoing the cultural consensus

Just as it begins to safely coalesce.

They manage this despite having come

From unfashionable places

Like Monkeytown

Or maybe even

The Southern Baptist Convention.

So, perhaps they could be forgiven

For losing patience with the rest of us

As we persist in our stubborn failure

To see the light

Shed by their liberated radiance.

We are moved only by our tribal hatreds.

But they have become

Avatars of love.

Erick Erickson, Andrew Sullivan, and What “Bigots” Deserve

Andrew Sullivan and Erick Erickson recently agreed on something having to do with gay marriage and community life.  Well, sort of, anyway.  The nature of Sullivan’s agreement is productive of further discussion.

Erickson pointed out, quite sensibly, that Christians who are photographers or bakers are not seeking to reject any and all business from gay customers.  Rather, he noted, that Christian photographers and bakers object specifically to participating in a gay wedding.  A wedding, for many people and certainly for Christians, is an explicitly religious activity.  It is really not unreasonable for people with a particular religious view of marriage (such as Christians well within the mainstream of Christian belief) to not want to participate in something they believe to be wrong.

Bravo to Erickson for making a subtle point clear and to Sullivan for recognizing the point has merit, or at least is worth further thought.  There is a hitch here, however.  Sullivan argues that gays can afford to cede this discretion over thought and action to Christians who object because such people are obviously losing.  Given the fact of tables being suddenly turned, surely champions of gay rights can afford to “leave the fundamentalists and bigots alone.”

How gracious of Sullivan to make such a charitable offer.  But is the characterization of such people fair?  We are experiencing a change in the way we define the good society.  In the past, it was uncontroversial (and biologically pretty natural) for communities to think that in a good society men marry women and that same sex pairs do not marry.  Rather, the appropriate mode for same sex pairings was friendship rather than sexual intimacy.  At this point, it is clear that our definition of the good society is changing and that the majority are at a minimum saying that people have to decide these things for themselves and that men can thus marry men and women can marry women.  But here is the essential question:  What exactly is it about a social tipping point that turns yesterday’s commonsensical person into today’s bigot?

I think one way I could try to defend opponents of gay marriage from charges of rank bigotry is to examine the moral intuitions of children.  In the course of raising mine, I have noticed that they had no underlying matrix of reason by which to understand racism.  When they were a little younger, they never talked about a child as being black or white.  The racial awareness simply wasn’t there.  If I heard them telling a story about a classmate and wanted to know more about the child, I would ask them to describe the child.  They would then include a description which might include something like light skin or dark skin, straight or curly hair, tall or short, etc.  The implication is that bigotry must be cultivated.

Same sex marriage is susceptible to a similar analysis.  Because of a situation in our extended family, my children became aware of a man who wanted to be with other men instead of women.  They simply did not understand why a man would want to share romantic love with another man.  The idea violated their concept of what a man is.  A man shares romantic/marital love with women rather than men.  I learned this about their reasoning before I ever tried to explain things to them or to help them understand it.  Just as a child’s natural understanding tilts away from racism, I would suggest that it tilts toward a complementary view of the sexes.  In other words, men go with women and women go with men.  Just as bigotry must be cultivated, so, too, must the appreciation of same sex pairings.  In other words, bigotry is the result of intentional cultural work and so is the appreciation of same sex pairs.  Neither is a natural understanding from the child’s point of view.  (Please understand  that I am not morally equating bigotry with cultural advocacy of gay acceptance.  That is not the point.)

In the case of racism, we would see the culture’s work in the child to be pernicious.  Creating an awareness of racial difference is not a good thing.  The question, then, is whether the culture’s current work to change the understanding of marriage is good.  I would suggest that the answer is not as obvious as it appears to have suddenly become.  Is it really so difficult to understand the people who do not think that it is?  Is it necessary to demonize them as “fundamentalists and bigots,” especially when their view was uncontroversial as little as ten years ago?  The physical complementarity of men and women is powerfully suggestive to the ordinary conscience, is it not?  And yes, religious understandings run in that direction, too.  God is the designer.  People infer intent from the complementary design of men and women.  The underlying point here, though, is that the perception of same sex marriage as something that is improper is not only religious in nature, it is intuitive and has been for thousands of years.

Are those who have not acclimated themselves to the cultural moment, then, really “fundamentalists and bigots?”  Or are they people who have legitimate reasons to think what they think?  You, the reader, may not be convinced by them, but does your lack of assent invalidate the viewpoint entirely?  I think a little more respect is in order, especially from those who are building a case primarily on the logic of freedom.  Free people have to be thinking people.  And free people must also be generous toward those who dissent.

As a final side note, I recognize that the points I have made about the moral intuitions of children do not constitute some kind of bulletproof defeaters of arguments for same sex marriage.  Just remember that I have not proposed to win the argument.  Rather, I have sought to give pause to those who would run roughshod over the consciences of those who protest the current cultural movement.  It seems to me that the burden of establishing respect for a conscientious standpoint should be lower than the burden imposed on one who seeks to completely prevail in argument.