Working In Dilbert's World

IS IT REAL ... OR IS IT "DILBERT"? (A) A software engineer, recently refused a promotion, is receiving his performance review. He asks the boss why he got passed over. "You're not a ML team player," says the boss. "What do you mean I'm not a team player?" asks the stunned employee. The answer: "You didn't smile in the company photo." (B) A boss and a subordinate are traveling together on a business trip. At an airport layover, the subordinate goes to a pay phone to check the office voice mail for messages. The boss appears fascinated. "You mean," he says, "you can check voice mail while you're on the road?" (C) A consultant brought in by the brass addresses a group of managers and engineers at a meeting. To improve the company's business processes, he says, "I'll show you how a well-designed process can compensate for your sloth, apathy and all-around incompetence." There is a deadly pause. Then the consultant adds, 'But most important-let's have fun."

The answers to this quiz, which you are probably taking at your desk instead of the work that your soulless boss thinks you're doing, are (A) real life (it happened to a programmer at a brokerage firm); ( B) real life (the experience of a marketing manager at a Fortune 100 firm), and (C) "Dilbert." The last, of course, is the title of a daily comic strip that has suddenly won its own promotion from cult status to mass phenomenon. its creator is Scott Adams (page 54), himself a former middle-managed cubicle dweller.

But you probably know this. You also probably have one or two "Dilbert" strips push-pinned to the wall of your own 9-by-9 slice of the, workplace. You devour the strip daily in one of the 1,100 newspapers that run it, you purchase the "Dilbert" books that have assaulted the best-seller charts ("The Dilbert Principle" has topped The New York Times list), and your mouseclicks may well contribute to the 1.5 million hits that The Dilbert Zone Web site accumulates daily. One thing is unmistakably clear to the hordes who compulsively follow the fortunes of the strip's eponymous hero. a mouthless engineer with a perpetually bent necktie: the bedrock truth of the American workplace. at least in the white-collar corporate caverns where clerks, engineers, marketers and salespeople dwell, is not to be found in the heaving stacks of business books in the local Barnes & Noble, nor in the neatly bound reports of the McKinsevs and other management-consulting firms. it's in the comics, in fact, the blithely clueless remark by the consultant cited in (C) may well have been uttered in some bland conference room by a real person, and reported to Scott Adams in one of the 300 or so e-mail messages he receives in an average day.

That's why your score on our little quiz really doesn't matter. (That's right, another pointless workplace exercise.) The contrast between Dilbert" and real life is ... almost nonexistent.

"It's not a comic strip, it's a documentary-it provides the best window into the reality of corporate life that I've ever seen," says Mike Hammer, author of "Reengineering the Corporation," who is a fan despite the fact that Adams often lampoons his theories. Another management expert, Guy Kawasaki of Apple Computer, agrees. "There are only two kinds of companies," he says. "Those that recognize they're just like 'Dilbert,' and those that are also like 'Dilbert' but don't know it yet."

If this is true, woe betide us all. The workplace according to "Dilbert" owes less to Edward Deming or Tom Peters than o George Orwell and Franz Kafka. The title character is a nerdy loser toiling in a constricting cubicle. He can't get respect or a date. His dog, the potato-shaped Dogbert, is a cheerful yet ruthless consultant, whose not-terribly secret goal is to rule the world and enslave all humans. Catbert is a human-resources director who before distributing pink slips toys with employees as if the), were balls of yarn. The only one with a modicum of wisdom is the garbage collector, who has cleverly opted out of the system.

The central tenet of this dyspeptic corporate vision is the Dilbert Principle. As Adams put it, "The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management." Of course, this creates maximum damage, as their idiocy permeates corporate fife. "lt seems as if we've turned nature's rules upside down," Adams writes. "We systematically identify and promote people who have the least skills."

Every month or so in the "Dilbert" workplace, some bizarre management fad dribbles down to the drones: Reengineering, Total Quality Management or paintball tournaments. They are timewasters at best, tortures at worst. Hours are spent in meetings about deadlines, deadlines that get harder to make because of all the hours spent in meetings. Technology has run amok; the engineers understand how it works, but the bosses--who can't tell the difference between a PowerBook and an Etch-A-Sketch--don't get it at all. Every so often, an order comes from above to devote massive amounts of time to make everything "IS09000 compliant"; no one knows what IS09000 is. Instead of getting products out the door, people are asked to memorize mission statements. And in the background, burning ever closer, are the fires of Competition, triggering the dread drums of Downsizing. "Knock knock," says the boss. "Who's there?" asks the employee. The boss grins: "Not you anymore!"

If this isn't hell, it's close. Even "Dilbert's" creator admits that those two tufts of hair sticking out of the boss's mostly bald pate are modeled on the Devil's horns. "Over time," says Adams, "his personality gets more defective, and his horns get higher, making him look even more demonic."

Are things really that bad in real life? Are we all as doomed as Dilbert, destined to pass out from exhaustion from working in air-conditioned sweatshops? Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, seems to admit as much when he says downsizing, wage stagnation and a shortsighted corporate efficiency mania have drastically changed the work environment to the detriment of the worker. "It has certainly raised questions of cynicism, loyalty, perceived sense of worth and career aspirations," be says, neatly summarizing the traumas at Dilbert's unnamed yet universal employer. On the other hand, surveys show that a lot of us are fairly satisfied with our jobs. A NEWSWEEK Poll conducted this summer indicated an impressive majority--87 percent--considered their workplace a "pleasant environment."

So why is everyone reading "Dilbert" and saying, "Hey, that's my job"? Scott Adams has a theory: "if you're in an absurd situation and you're not changing it, then you define it as being OK," he says. "Most people say,'My job is good, but today I had a really bad time'." It's analogous to the way people view Congress. Overwhelmingly they will register disapproval--and then go out and reelect their own representative. When the pollsters zeroed in on the details, it turned out that the workers indeed are living in "Dilbert's" world. More than 70 percent experience stress at work. When asked whether unnecessary rules and red tape prevent them from doing their best job, half agree. The biggest complaint seems to be poor communication between management and workers - 64 percent claimed that this impeded their work. And there's no confidence that good work alone will reap rewards: when asked what gets someone promoted, people were equally divided between how good a job one does and how politically connected one is.

What the survey does not show is the suppressed rage of workers who tolerate abuses and absurdities in a marketplace leaned-and-meaned to Wall Street's specifications. Reading "Dilbert" allows them, in some small way, to strike back, or at least to experience a pleasant catharsis by identifying the nature of the beast: a general yet pervasive sense of idiocy in corporate America that is seldom dealt with by the captains of industry who have great hair and offices with doors. Here is a sampling of phenomena where the comic strip is uncomfortably close to real life:

A former cubicle dweller himself, Scott Adams has made Dilbert's dinky domain a prime symbol of workplace humiliation. There are companies, such as chipmaker Intel, where everybody, even the CEO, works out of a warren. But generally, dispatching someone to one of those pasteboard waffle holes is a public, self-fulfilling prophecy of subpar performance. "if you put somebody in a cubicle," says Adams, "You cannot expect him to,, make decisions which are higher quality than cubicle decisions.,,

Adams has gotten mileage out of other so-called alternative office strategies like Hoteling (spaces are divvied out daily, first come, first served), Shared Space (employees confined like two-to-a-cell prisoners) and Free-Address (workers share large, open, hivelike spaces). The newest horror among the boxed set is "densification," when employers literally close in the walls on the workers to save floor space. "It's part of a constant nickel-and-diming of the employee," says Adams. "'I want you to work another hour and make the cubicle two feet smaller'."

While boss-hating is an honored tradition, in the '90s there's more reason for it than ever. "With downsizing and cost containment, the pressure on bosses has increased in remarkable ways, and instead of kicking the dog, they often kick the subordinate - and those people often kick their subordinates, " says Harvey Hornstein, a psychologist and author of "Brutal Bosses." No wonder some of the most popular "Dilbert" strips are the ones where the superior torments his underlings, like the one where he offers to raise an employee appraisal if the worker eats a bug. ("It's way more motivational if I pick the bug," says the boss.) It's not hard, however, to find real-life tales that 'Lop 'the transgressions in the comic strip. There's even a Web site devoted to such horror

Or just listen to a former worker at an East Coast high-tech company where the president walked around the office turning down the air conditioning, even though employees worked in hot, windowless offices. "People were literally sweating on their desks," says the worker.

"ln the '50s and '60s, management heretics espoused that participation, egalitarianism and involvement would not just make people happier, but improve the bottom line," says Art Kleiner, author of "The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change." Sounds great, but then the Dilbert Principle kicked in, and the programs came under the control of idiots. Mishandled and forced upon workers, these schemes now succeed only in making workers more cynical-and less productive. Typical is the middle manager at a financial-services firm, living under the boot of one of the ubiquitous total-quality programs: "Paying attention to customers and quality is what I do every day" he says. "but now I have to hang up signs and post measurements."

Technology does enhance the workplace: it boosts productivity, it distributes all-important information around the company, it enables workers to play solitaire without shuffling cards. It also makes bosses look even more clueless than usual, like the executive at a government regulatory agency whose answer to every technological dilemma is "get a bigger disk drive." For some reason, though, the bosses wind up with the snazziest computers, which gather dust while underlings struggle with wheezing old boxes that can't run Windows 95.

Ever since Apple's Macintosh development team in the mid-1980s wore T shirts proclaiming go HOURS A WEEK AND LOVING IT! high-tech companies have figured out it's good business to coax triple-time work out of single-salary employees. and the practice seems to have spread to other sectors of the workplace. But Americans don't love spending all their time at work 40 percent of NEWSWEEK'S Poll respondents think their employers ask too much of them. Dilbert's boss, for instance, thinks nothing of drawing a time line for a project that has the hapless engineer designing "a client-server architecture for our worldwide operations" -in six minutes.

An indication of how far this has gone is one of the latest corporate trends: "home-at-work." The idea is that since employees are being asked to spend almost all their waking hours at the office, the least the company can do is let them entertain themselves with the computer. So the company permits them to do banking, personal e-mail and even recreational Net-surfing at their workstations. Meanwhile, the main contact these drones have with their families is by viewing snapshots of their kids on the World Wide Web.

In Dilbert's company, it's done by Dogbert's "canomatic," a device disguised as a toilet that "randomly fires people by slapping a pink slip on their backs and catapulting them out of the building." But whether it's done to lower costs, impress Wall Street and get rid of that chimerical deadwood, downsizing is the defining reality of the workplace today. If everybody weren't so worried about being Dogberted, the absurdities of the workplace would be infinitely more tolerable - and the "Dilbert" strip would be shorn of its sharpest edge.

Surprisingly, Scott Adams himself thinks that downsizing does make the workplace more efficient fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations. What gives Adams grist for the "Dilbert" mill is the way managers mishandle downsizing, not only in the often cruel manner in which the news is broken, but in its sometimes counterproductive effects. Nynex, for instance, has shed thousands of employees since 1990. Union rules protect senior workers, "but our younger employees were the ones who had taken more time to educate themselves," says a remaining technician. "We have actually gotten rid of our best people." This practice of getting rid of the brightest workers-happens so often that it has its own term: brightsizing.

Why don't managers say what they really mean? Because then you'd know. "My boss actually said to me, 'Let's bubble back up to the surface and smell the numbers'," marvels Toph Whitmore, an analyst at a software firm in Bellevue, Wash. "I had no idea what it meant."

At worst, business communication is purposely misleading. "My company put out a memo that told us to go home over the July Fourth weekend and relax," says an engineer at a Silicon Valley firm. In fact, the firm was mandating the workers to use vacation days for the long weekend-something that the employees understood immediately. All this, of course, leads to cynicism and resentment. Sometimes it's little things that put workers over the edge -like the company that declared that engineers using the whiteboard would be limited to two marker colors. Other times it's bigger things, like seeing workers blown away like props on the "Twister" set. As a result, the American workplace nods in agreement at the "Dilbert" cartoon where the boss admits that he was mistaken when be previously claimed that "employees are our most valuable asset." Actually, he explains, they're ninth. Eighth place? "Carbon paper," says the boss.

Is there any hope that the workplace can improve? A number of consultants think so, and cite the strip itself as an antidote to corporate mindlessness. Adams himself has hopes that his comic strip may actually change the problems that he satirizes. "Somebody told me that their company now has a Dilbertization committee," he says. "The idea is to find things their company does that could potentially be fodder for a 'Dilbert' cartoon strip, and change it. This is repeating itself in other companies. It almost seems like there are fewer absurdities happening."

There's a problem with that theory, though. in order for the strip to have those effects, the bosses first have to Get It. According 'to the Dilbert Principle, this will happen around the same time that cubicles learn to fly. Consider the small but telling event that occurred recently at a Midwestern company. A manager went over to a worker's desk and noticed a "Dilbert" posted on the wall. In the strip, the boss was complaining that a report was too readable. Could Dilbert muddy up the language a bit? "Oh," the manager chuckled, "isn't that the truth?" Then she changed the subject-after reviewing a document for the seventh time, she wanted the worker to redo it yet again.

Real life ... or "Dilbert"? Hard to say. The only difference is that with "Dilbert," it doesn't hurt so much when you laugh.

As companies try to put a positive spin on the ugly practice of layoffs, they've invented a new lexicon. Some downsizing lingo:

COMPANY EUPHEMISM AT&T Force management program Bank of America Release of resources Bell Labs Involuntary separation from payroll Clifford of Vermont Career-change opportunity Digital Equipment Corp. Involuntary severance GM Career-transition program Harris Bank of Chicago Rightsizing the bank National Semiconductor Reshaping Newsweek Reduction in force (RIF) Pacific Bell Elimination of employment security policy Procter & Gamble Strengthening global effectiveness Stanford Univ. Repositioning Stouffer Foods Corp. Schedule adjustments Tandem Computers Reducing duplication or focused reduction Wal-Mart Normal payroll adjustment

Source: "The New Doublespeak," By William Lutz