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.


2 thoughts on “Getting Beyond the Dilbert Principle

  1. Really great points, Hunter. An interesting thing about Dilbert is that almost everyone (including Adams) uses it as a parable of how terrible managers are – yet the employees are portrayed just as badly. They are lazy, sarcastic, counterproductive, emotionally immature, and don’t even seem to be that good at their jobs. A decent manager would probably fire most of the characters in the strip. In a way, they’re lucky to have the pointy-haired manager as their boss. I still find Adams funny, but he appears to take his vision of reality *as* reality, rather than recognizing it as just as much a distortion of reality as the blandly optimistic business books he parodies.

  2. That’s a nice elaboration, Mike. I think that Adams’ vision of the workplace overall is quite negative if he thinks that managers leading employees to some kind of virtuouso performance necessarily entails the sacrifice of health and happiness.

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