Why does the workplace of established organizations so often resemble a Dilbert cartoon? Managers are (generally) smart, highly educated people: why are they acting in ways that dispirit employees and frustrate the hell out of customers?
Dilbert, the cartoon, was first published by Scott Adams on April 16, 1989, but its intellectual origins came earlier.
The skill set and the attitudes of the Dilbertian manager were identified in a famous HBR article in 1977: Abraham Zaleznik’s “Managers and Leaders Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review. 1977, 82 (1), p74-81. The article has been republished a number of times by HBR, as recently as just this week, showing that HBR, at least, still thinks the piece relevant to today.
In the article, Zaleznik deftly describes the attitudes of the Dilbertian manager.
- First, the manager focuses attention on procedure and not on substance. The manager focuses attention on how the decisions are made, not what decisions to make. That’s because the manager is typically working in a bureaucratic setting where the goals of the organization are neither clear nor perceived as worthwhile. In the place of goals that provide meaning at work and in work, there is a hierarchical structure, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures, which often conflict: managers have no way of knowing what is the right answer. The only safe place is to focus on process.
- Second, the manager communicates to subordinates indirectly by “signals”, rather than clearly stating a position. The traditional rule-driven bureaucracy requires both managers and workers to leave their personal views and attitudes behind in the entry lobby, before they enter the workplace. In this world, the managers’ personal views are irrelevant. The only safe way to communicate is to make use of the rules and deploy indirect “signals”, which obscure who wins and who loses. The manager can hide behind process: “It is not what I believe that matters: It is what the system requires.”
- Third, the manager plays for time. With conflicting rules and procedures, and conflicts about priorities between different senior managers, managers have no way of knowing what the right answer is. The idea of using their own judgment is at odds with the idea that they left their own views in the entrance lobby. Hence playing for time and waiting for the dust to settle are ways of always being on the winning side. These CYA routines are played out, up and down the hierarchy.
These Dilbertian practices enable a middle level manager to survive. Scott Adams has made a fortune by depicting how these practices play out on a daily basis in large organizations around the world, while frustrating both employees and customers.
One puzzle is why this kind of behavior went on and on, without any apparent way to bring it to an end.
In some ways, the 1977 Zaleznik article was responsible for this.
The article provided the insight that traditional managers operate differently from leaders who could inspire people to act in new ways. That might have been useful if it had led to an examination of whether the skills and attitudes of pure managers were appropriate, even in 1977.
The problem? That would have meant reconsidering some of the fundamental assumptions of management. So what actually happened is that it led to was the idea of dual tracks. We have leaders to inspire people to change, and managers to grind out the execution. Two separate groups of people.
Inevitably the two groups worked at cross-purposes. As much as leaders inspired employees with new ideas, managers tended to dispirit those same people with their Dilbert-cartoon style management. The result was counter-productive, but it provided the intellectual justification for managers continuing to manage just as they had for lo, these many decades.
John Kotter also played—unwittingly—a role in preserving the life of Dilbert-style management. In his influential HBR article, What Leaders Really Do (1990, (3), 103-112), which was mainly about leadership, he also in passing endorsed bureaucracy as the only way to manage:
"Management develops the capacity to achieve its plan by organizing and staffing—creating an organizational structure and set of jobs for accomplishing plan requirements, staffing the jobs with qualified individuals, communicating the plan to those people, delegating responsibility for carrying out the plan, and devising systems to monitor implementation."
Without such bureaucracy, “organizations tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence.” The fact that such bureaucracy kills innovation, dispirits both managers and workers and typically ends up frustrating customers was not noted. This way of managing was simply necessary to avert chaos.
The “two types of people” theory also got support when Kotter said:
“Some people have the capacity to become excellent managers but not strong leaders. Others have great leadership potential, but, for a variety of reasons, have great difficulty becoming strong managers. Smart companies value both kinds of people and work hard to make them part of the team.”
Although Kotter didn’t subscribe to the view that one person couldn’t in principle be both a leader and a manager, he did imply that leader-managers were rare. For the most part, leaders and managers were two different kinds of people, with different skill sets.
And so the practical dichotomy between managers and leaders continued. Most of the creative thinking about running organizations was pursued under the heading of “leadership”, while writing about “management” essentially consisted of minor patches and fixes to Dilbertian bureaucracy, which was seen as necessary to fend off pending chaos.
The thought that chaos could be averted without Dilbertian bureaucracy has been around for some time.
- For many decades, Toyota appeared to have pulled off the trick through “lean manufacturing”, but companies raised on Dilbertian bureaucracy found Toyota hard to replicate.
- Companies like W.L.Gore & Associates seemed to have found a way to use self-organizing teams to produce scalable efficiency without bureaucracy.
- Agile software development was still another variant of self-organizing teams has been implemented in thousands of organizations around the world with dramatic success, but it had difficulty spreading into general management, in part because the terminology was software-specific.
- Brave CEOs like Vineet Nayar at HCLT are inventing new management practices to undermine bureaucratic practices.
- The force of social media has also compelling companies to adopt more open leadership, as described by Charlene Li.
Why haven’t these practices penetrated the mainstream of management thinking so as to dispatch Dilbertian management to its well-deserved place in the dustbin of history? These instances tended to be viewed as isolated context-specific instances that lacked a general theory of how they could be applied more widely.
The need for such a theory was made explicit in Gary Hamel’s excellent article, Moon Shots for Management (HBR, February 2009), in which 35 management gurus spelled out the criteria that a new theory of management would need to meet.
In the meantime, however, established organizations are staffed with people schooled in traditional management principles. Management textbooks continue to assert that this is the way to manage. Business schools grind out thousands of graduates who have imbibed the philosophy. Armies of consultants are afoot in established organizations, following the principles of traditional management and continuously searching for expenses to cut, rather than how they can add value. All this is necessary, it is said, to avert chaos. And so Dilbertian management continues to thrive, largely unabated.
Scott Adams must be happy.
The world is in desperate need of a radically different kind of management, which was founded on sound, fully integrated managerial principles and which avoids the horrors of Dilbertian bureaucracy.
My forthcoming book on radical management aspires to describe what such management looks like, where it is happening and provide a general theory as to why and how it works. For more information, go here: