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Absurdity of bureaucracies

A tribute to institutional incompetence

News  Note on Fundamental Absurdity of IT Management Recommended links Authoritarians Dictionary of corporate bullshit Bureaucracy as a Political Coalition
Classification of Corporate Psychopaths Female Sociopaths Micromanagers Bully Managers Narcissistic Managers Surviving a Bad Performance Review
The Good Soldier Svejk Parkinson Law The Peter Principle Sysadmin Horror Stories Humor Financial Skeptic Humor

We will discuss the problem using IT bureaucracies as example, just because this is the area the author knows best. Introduction was converted to a separate article due to increased volume. See Note on Fundamental Absurdity of IT Management. Earlier research of absurdity of bureaucracies was limited to military bureaucracies. Classic early example here is immortal novel The Good Soldier Svejk.

Please understand that epic technical incompetence of higher level  management is more common then you would think. One warning signs is over-reliance on consultants (who mercilessly fleece those jerks), technical fads, promotion of cronies and fighting for territory (territorial games). All of those are just different manifestations of two core problems that is immanent in large corporations -- incompetence and absurdity. 

There is also another side of technical incompetence -- the systemic rise of various types of authoritarians (especially double high authoritarians) and psychopath (especially female sociopaths) in management ranks. And authoritarians do not directly belong to the category of  psychopaths they are no less, if not more, destructive. They are also much more numerous (approximately 4% of psychopaths vs. approximately 20% of authoritarians by some estimates).  See

Please understand that death and life question of working in large corporate IT now is: How do we deal with incompetent leadership?

More complex question is about value of working in large corporations, including large corporate IT departments. Here my message is mixed. There are some unique opportunities within large corporations IT departments that you can't find elsewhere (so please don't assume that I am a simplistic nihilist), but you need to know quite a lot about authoritarian organizations to survive and prosper in such an environment. Social skills that are typically severely underdeveloped in many talented programmer and sysadmins are of crucial importance.

Learning them is also "life and death" issue, if you intend to survive in a large corporate IT environment. Platitudes about authoritarianism and absurdity aren't enough.

Absurdity is a feature not an anomaly

Like in military bureaucracy, the absurdity of IT management in large organizations is not anomaly, it is a fundamental feature due to tremendous and underappreciated complexity of the system and the way selection of managers works. And absurdity does not necessary matters complete inefficiency at the bottom level. Often rank-and-file employees do useful, competent job despite incompetence and absurd decisions and initiatives of higher management. This phenomenon was well researched in studies of the USSR and military bureaucracies. For example, sometimes army unit which were put in untenable doomed position because of incompetence of their higher command, managed to snatch the victory from the teeth of defeat.  

There are three factor complex interplay between which guarantee the result: 

In other words a typical middle level corporate IT manager is not the epic hero we once imagined. In most cases he/she is a despicable sucker. Now we know: typically he was never as smart or as right as we had hoped before promotions. And he deteriorated in his technical acumen since it. His teeth aren't perfect either. But let's not go overboard: he's also not an epic sociopath (or let's say he is not always a sociopath ;-).  Most probably he is an authoritarian, though.

More commonly he is a person with good organizational and political skills (at least of "kiss up, kick down variety), who was able better then others to navigate his way in IT hierarchy.  The tragedy of IT managers is that the field is fast changing and due to this fast pace of technical change, the job requires high level of technical competence. And this particular quality is very rare and due to this is often lacking. Tales of incredible, grotesque  incompetence of key players in IT management in large corporations are abundant. I would mention several of my own:

But it is important to understand that despite inner absurdity, IT performs its tasks and it performs them well enough to keep a typical corporation profitable. So this is a "good enough" way as Parkinson and Peter understood long ago. Incredibly absurd, but good enough. This happens all the time. If you are a sysadmin, you are just a minor actor in this drama, a trench solder, so the best way is to enjoy the show and not take it too personally or seriously if somebody tells you that soon all your Linux systems will be running on VMware because they can. It is not necessary that he/she has relatives among VMware brass. Most often this is plain vanilla institutional stupidity.

Elements of dysfunction of IT organizations

  1. Absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be genuinely open with one another, making it impossible to build a foundation of trust. As a result teamwork deteriorates as everybody is trying to protect his own back.
  2. Fear of conflict. Failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered passionate debate, resulting in guarded comments.
  3. Lack of commitment. A lack of healthy discussion and healthy level of conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction: lack of commitment. Without airing opinions in the course of open debate, team members rarely or never buy-in and commit to decisions.
  4. Avoidance of accountability. This lack of buy-in creates an avoidance of accountability. If there is no commitment to a clear plan of action, even the most focused people will hesitate to call their peers on counterproductive behavior.
  5. Misrepresentation of results and fudging performance metrics. Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Misrepresentation of results occurs when team members put their individual or division needs above the collective goals of the organization.
  6. Meetings mania. This is side effect of both responsibility avoidance and lack of trust between members of the organization but it has life of its own and became independent phenomena. When it strikes most managers spend good time of their day attending some kid of meetings. In extreme cases meetings are called because a particular manager just feels lonely...


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[Feb 04, 2014] Chris Hedges Military Metaphysics How Militarism Mangles the Mind

For the next 20 years I would go on from war zone to war zone as a foreign correspondent immersed in military culture. Repetitive rote learning and an insistence on blind obedience-similar to the approach used to train a dog-work on the battlefield. The military exerts nearly total control over the lives of its members. Its long-established hierarchy ensures that those who embrace the approved modes of behavior rise and those who do not are belittled, insulted and hazed. Many of the marks of civilian life are stripped away. Personal modes of dress, hairstyle, speech and behavior are heavily regulated. Individuality is physically and then psychologically crushed. Aggressiveness is rewarded. Compassion is demeaned. Violence is the favorite form of communication. These qualities are an asset in war; they are a disaster in civil society.

Homer in "The Iliad" showed his understanding of war. His heroes are not pleasant men. They are vain, imperial, filled with rage and violent. And Homer's central character in "The Odyssey," Odysseus, in his journey home from war must learn to shed his "hero's heart," to strip from himself the military attributes that served him in war but threaten to doom him off the battlefield. The qualities that serve us in war defeat us in peace.

Most institutions have a propensity to promote mediocrities, those whose primary strengths are knowing where power lies, being subservient and obsequious to the centers of power and never letting morality get in the way of one's career. The military is the worst in this respect.

In the military, whether at the Paris Island boot camp or West Point, you are trained not to think but to obey. What amazes me about the military is how stupid and bovine its senior officers are. Those with brains and the willingness to use them seem to be pushed out long before they can rise to the senior-officer ranks.

The many Army generals I met over the years not only lacked the most rudimentary creativity and independence of thought but nearly always saw the press, as well as an informed public, as impinging on their love of order, regimentation, unwavering obedience to authority and single-minded use of force to solve complex problems.

... ... ...

...Peace is for the weak. War is for the strong. Hypermasculinity has triumphed over empathy. We Americans speak to the world exclusively in the language of force. And those who oversee our massive security and surveillance state seek to speak to us in the same demented language. All other viewpoints are to be shut out. "In the absence of contrasting views, the very highest form of propaganda warfare can be fought: the propaganda for a definition of reality within which only certain limited viewpoints are possible," C. Wright Mills wrote. "What is being promulgated and reinforced is the military metaphysics-the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military."

Sturmtruppen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Zis damned military service vill haff to end sometime. I've grown tired of hafing to say 'Yes, sir' to anyone with a higher ranken. I kan barely vait to return to being an anonymous civilian and being able to zay 'Yes, sir' to any of my superiors..."

Sturmtruppen's success spurred two cinema adaptations. The first one, Sturmtruppen (1976), was co-written by Bonvicini and directed by Salvatore Samperi. In 1982 a sequel, Sturmtruppen II, was released, again directed by Samperi and featuring Renato Pozzetto, Massimo Boldi and Teo Teocoli.

Bonvi had a small part as a German officer. The quality of the two movies was uneven, albeit some ideas and situations (such as the Captain abusing a life-size plush toy with Karl Marx features -- only to be assaulted and bitten by it -- or the Pope offering a poisoned wafer to the angelic soldier who came from heaven to usher in a new age of Peace) are very biting and sarcastic, on par with the best strips.

On August 16, 2006, Miramax moved forward with plans to create a live-action movie based on Sturmtruppen. It is not known if a script has been written, or who is slated to direct the movie.

Albert Camus

Many writers have addressed the Absurd, each with his or her own interpretation of what the Absurd is and what comprises its importance. For example, Sartre recognizes the absurdity of individual experience, while Kierkegaard explains that the absurdity of certain religious truths prevent us from reaching God rationally. Camus regretted the continued reference to himself as a "philosopher of the absurd". He showed less interest in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). To distinguish his ideas, scholars sometimes refer to the Paradox of the Absurd, when referring to "Camus' Absurd".

His early thoughts appeared in his first collection of essays, L'Envers et l'endroit (The Two Sides Of The Coin) in 1937. Absurd themes were expressed with more sophistication in his second collection of essays, Noces (Nuptials), in 1938. In these essays Camus reflects on the experience of the Absurd. In 1942 he published the story of a man living an absurd life as L'Étranger (The Stranger). In the same year he released Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), a literary essay on the Absurd. He also wrote a play about Caligula, a Roman Emperor, pursuing an absurd logic. The play was not performed until 1945.

The turning point in Camus' attitude to the Absurd occurs in a collection of four letters to an anonymous German friend, written between July 1943 and July 1944. The first was published in the Revue Libre in 1943, the second in the Cahiers de Libération in 1944, and the third in the newspaper Libertés, in 1945. The four letters were published as Lettres à un ami allemand (Letters to a German Friend) in 1945, and were included in the collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.

Ideas on the Absurd

In his essays Camus presented the reader with dualisms: happiness and sadness, dark and light, life and death, etc. His aim was to emphasize the fact that happiness is fleeting and that the human condition is one of mortality. He did this not to be morbid, but to reflect a greater appreciation for life and happiness. In Le Mythe, this dualism becomes a paradox: We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless.

While we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless).

In Le Mythe, Camus was interested in how we experience the Absurd and how we live with it. Our life must have meaning for us to value it. If we accept that life has no meaning and therefore no value, should we kill ourselves?

In Le Mythe, Camus suggests that 'creation of meaning', would entail a logical leap or a kind of philosophical suicide in order to find psychological comfort. But Camus wants to know if he can live with what logic and lucidity has uncovered – if one can build a foundation on what one knows and nothing more. Creation of meaning is not a viable alternative but a logical leap and an evasion of the problem. He gives examples of how others would seem to make this kind of leap. The alternative option, namely suicide, would entail another kind of leap, where one attempts to kill absurdity by destroying one of its terms (the human being). Camus points out, however, that there is no more meaning in death than there is in life, and that it simply evades the problem yet again. Camus concludes, that we must instead 'entertain' both death and the absurd, while never agreeing to its terms.

Meursault, the absurdist hero of L'Étranger, has killed a man and is scheduled to be executed. Caligula ends up admitting his absurd logic was wrong and is killed by an assassination he has deliberately brought about. However, while Camus possibly suggests that Caligula's absurd reasoning is wrong, the play's anti-hero does get the last word, as the author similarly exalts Meursault's final moments.

Camus made a significant contribution to a viewpoint of the Absurd, and always rejected nihilism as a valid response.

"If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning." Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.

Camus' understanding of the Absurd promotes public debate; his various offerings entice us to think about the Absurd and offer our own contribution. Concepts such as cooperation, joint effort and solidarity are of key importance to Camus, though they are most likely sources of 'relative' versus 'absolute' meaning.

Religious beliefs and Absurdism

While writing his thesis on Plotinus and Saint Augustine of Hippo, Camus became very strongly influenced by their works, especially that of St. Augustine. In his work, Confessions (consisting of 13 books), Augustine promotes the idea of a connection between God and the rest of the world. Camus identified with the idea that a personal experience could become a reference point for his philosophical and literary writings.

Although he considered himself an atheist, Camus later came to tout the idea that the absence of religious belief can simultaneously be accompanied by a longing for "salvation and meaning". This line of thinking presented an ostensible paradox and became a major thread in defining the idea of absurdism in Camus' writings.[12]

Opposition to totalitarianism

Throughout his life, Camus spoke out against and actively opposed totalitarianism in its many forms.[13] Early on, Camus was active within the French Resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II, even directing the famous Resistance journal, Combat. On the French collaboration with Nazi occupiers he wrote:

Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.[14]

Camus' well-known falling out with Sartre is linked to this opposition to totalitarianism.

Camus detected a reflexive totalitarianism in the mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of radical Marxism. This was apparent in his work L'Homme Révolté (The Rebel) which not only was an assault on the Soviet police state, but also questioned the very nature of mass revolutionary politics.

Camus continued to speak out against the atrocities of the Soviet Union, a sentiment captured in his 1957 speech, The Blood of the Hungarians, commemorating the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising crushed in a bloody assault by the Red Army.

[Jan 30, 2013] On the psychology of military incompetence Norman F Dixon

Magnificent., June 3, 2007
By M. Harris (New Zealand) - See all my reviews

`On the psychology of military incompetence' is officially on the list of books that Army personnel aren't allowed to read, but since I was given this was a retired general, reading it seemed like the thing to do. I'm pleased I did.

To be frank, non-military personnel might not admire its sheer brilliant powers of deductive observation. As soon as I had read it I started to panic as I saw the caricatures played out around me. I then started to spot them in myself, and began to panic harder. I suspect this book is designed to give oneself (if you happen to be in the military) a bit of a fright, and to encourage introspection.

Anyway, it's a brilliant book that's simply chock-full of theories, explanations and uncomfortable questions. I think the uncomfortable questions are the most valuable, but you have to read for yourself to discover if you think the same. And you should read it - it should be required reading for Officer Cadets right up to Generals, and civilians should read it as well - after all, you're the ones ultimately in charge of us gun-slinging types, yes?

A serious look at a deadly problem, March 19, 2007
By In the Middle of the Road (Connecticut)

For most people, including most of today's amateur theorists on the events of the day, war is something akin to moving toy soldiers around. What they know of military matters is all too akin to cheering for a sports team. They want someone with a can do spirit and the willingness to charge into stiff resistance. Take that hill no matter what the cost. Fight to the death. A lot of horse manure.

War is a deadly business and there is probably no war in which incompetence was not afoot, whether in losing or in winning. Mix incompetence and a failure to understand the technology of war and you have WWI. The reality is that incompetence is as pervasive in the military as it is in the corporate world. And if we must fight wars, we should have a reasonable expectation tht the people who direct that effort have some idea of waht they are about. Dixon is concerned primarily with generalship.

I first read this when it was first published in the UK at least a couple of decades ago. It filled an important gap in the range of serious reading on both the military and organization behavior. As another reader notes, this is just organization behavior mil101.Most corporations are still organizing along military lines and that cuts through titles like team leader and associate. It is hard business to make it work right and too many times in the military, there is a failure of competence.

The fields o fhte world are littled with the remains of those who died through bad generals. Dixon reflects some of his own military experience in the British Army, including WWII, before he entered the Psychology field. There is a British emphasis, but the approach is generally and applies broadly to any military. And the examples he cites are among those that are studied deeply for implications. He covers the field from the intellectual capability of generals to a chapter that for the sake of review rules must be labeled as Bull droppings.

How do we deal with incompetent leadership? That is one of the questions Dixon addresses. It probably should be extended to political leaders given their power over warmaking.

In our day, we are assaulted with people who accuse their opponents of micromanaging war in Iraq. A decade or two from now, it may be somewhere else. But what we began doing in Vietnam was executive branch micromanaging and that was greatly expanded during the Iraq fiasco to the point that many left senior ranks. We look closely at our generals, but can we afford to go to war without understanding the competence gap that we might have in political leadership..

Irreverent, superbly written, interdisciplinary, enlightenin, September 29, 1998
By A Customer

Dixon is a former artillery officer, Sandhurst graduate, and self-described authoritarian personality, who left the Army and became a clinical psychologist. He uses both sets of experiences to analyze why officers in armies throughout history--mostly British, but the principles are generally applicable--have fallen into a stereotypical pattern of incompetence specific to senior military leaders. Much of the reason, he believes, derives from personality development, but the book is refreshingly devoid of psychobabble and is written in an astonishingly clear style. A real eye-opener, after which military history will not be quite the same to the reader again.

[Jan 30, 2013] Official Independent Investigation proves Gross Government & Corporate Incompetence regarding Nuclear Safety in Japan! by Aaron Hutchins

February 28, 2012 | Blind Bat News

"The direct causes of the nuclear accident were the unpreparedness of Tokyo Electric Power…and the government's lack of a sense of responsibility."-Koichi Kitazawa, lead investigator

A Japanese government sanctioned independent investigation has revealed gross incompetence in the wake of the March, 2011, nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. It also says that Tokyo Electric made the situation worse!

Six investigators interviewed more than 300 people, including Japanese and U.S. government officials. However, officials at Tokyo Electric refused to co-operate with the investigators! They have just published their findings, February 28, 2012.

The report calls government response "off the cuff", and "too late" (as I was posting last year)! The nuclear power plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCo), was ill prepared for a nuclear disaster, despite decades of telling locals they were prepared (as I posted last year). The Japanese government, especially the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, failed to ensure the proper training for nuclear disaster response (as I posted last year). The report also blames Japan's complicated system of delegating authority and responsibility. No one knew who was supposed to do what regarding the disaster; from top national government officials down to sub-contractors working for TEPCo (again, as I posted last year).Things were so bad that local governments have been taking the initiative to try and deal with things like relocating residents, and decontamination efforts, with little help from the national government (again, I posted).

Also, many of the discoveries of radiation contamination came as a result of individuals and private groups, who took it upon themselves to pay for testing things like dirt, water, and even food, like beef, sold in grocery stores (again, I). It was local governments who discovered farm crops to be contaminated (posted last year). The report also says that information coming from the private sector to government officials was insufficient to make proper decisions. TEPCo officials simply dragged their feet when it came to dealing with specific issues, like cooling systems being shut down, and vents not being opened. Not only did TEPCo drag their feet, but the investigators found that there was a back up cooling system that was functional, but TEPCo never used it!!! Although Japan's government has a crisis management policy, the investigators said it is totally useless!

UK Rural Payments Agency (RPA) IT failure and gross incompetence screws farmers


For additional background, it's helpful to look at the 2006 National Audit Office report (emphasis added below):

The single payment scheme is not a large grant scheme compared to some government programmes, but the complexity of the EU Regulations, the complex way in which the Department planned to implement them in England, combined with the deadlines required to implement the scheme for 2005, made it a high risk project. By choosing to integrate the scheme into a wider business change programme, the Agency added to its already considerable challenges.

Many of the Agency's difficulties arose, however, from:

By the end of March 2006 implementation of the single payment scheme had cost £46.5 million more than the Agency had anticipated in its November 2003 business case. The implementation of the single payment scheme and the wider business change programme had cost £258.3 million, will not achieve the level of savings forecast, and there is risk of substantial costs for disallowance by the European Commission. The farming industry has also incurred additional costs, 20 per cent of farmers have experienced stress and anxiety as a result, and five per cent of respondents to our survey said they have considered leaving farming.


The level of RPA mismanagement can hardly be over-estimated. As a small example, representing a broader pattern, see this House of Commons testimony (section EV8), by Johnston McNeill, former RPA boss, during an inquiry into the SPS debacle (emphasis added below):

Had we known that there was going to be that [level of claimant and land registration] volume, we could have looked at the volumes that the system could handle; whereas we could only look at the normal requirements. When we specified this system in 20034, when we were talking to Accenture, we had had a lengthy contract procurement and specification. We were specifying without any understanding of SPS requirements. We were specifying on our normal business requirements.

Although government incompetence has played a role, Accenture's involvement in this mess should not be ignored. Commenting on Accenture, a House of Commons investigating committee stated on page 5 (emphasis added below):

Accenture witnesses appeared to have been well schooled in not venturing comment on matters which they deemed were beyond their contractual observations. This attitude denied the Committee an important perspective on the way the SPS project was being run from the standpoint of a company at the heart of the venture. We regard this as an unacceptable attitude from a company of international repute and which may still aspire to work with UK government in other areas.

In evidence submitted to the House of Commons, Accenture denied responsibility for the problems, saying that (emphasis added below):

As has been widely acknowledged by numerous commentators and experts, significant IT enabled business change programmes can be difficult to manage. There have been many examples of problem projects in the public and private sectors in recent years with difficulties attributed to poorly defined requirements, changing business needs and lack of business involvement and preparedness that can lead to delivery difficulties.


To address the issues, the National Audit Office offers these suggestions:

We recommend that the Agency:


The National Audit Office recommendations listed above illustrate the extent to which basic IT best practices were not followed. Consider this as well:


This situation is different from many government IT failures, where money is wasted but innocent victims don't suffer personal injury. In this case, delayed and incorrect payments have directly affected farmers depending on subsidies to maintain their operations. In the words of Roger Williams, Liberal Democrat from Wales:

Farmers have found it difficult to accommodate problems with cash flow. Mention has been made of paying bills, but at the end of this week interest payments will be due on most accounts. That money will be taken out of the farmers' accounts. They will not have to make a conscious decision about it; the money will be removed from their accounts. That may take them above the level that they have agreed with their banks, and they will suffer the financial consequences-not just additional interest, but the other costs involved.

The BBC further reports on the damage caused to farmers:

Farmers in the East are being forced to the brink of bankruptcy by the Government's failure to pay their subsidies.

Many are struggling to survive while awaiting money from the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).

Johnston McNeill, former head of the RPA, eventually apologized for his agency's role in the disastrous situation:

"I deeply regret that we in the RPA and I as chief executive were not able to make payments to farmers in the targeted timetable". He said he was "saddened by the consequences".

Unfortunately, apologies coming from a man who earned £250,000 per year (about US$500,000), while inflicting such damage on his constituency, leave only a bereft and hollow sound.

[Aug 13, 2012] Plus Licens Dilbert by Richard Gilbert

May 4, 1997

DILBERT MEANS BUSINESS. The (anti-)hero of one of the most successful comic strips of our time is an icon for office workers everywhere - the only character property that speaks to business through multiple media outlets including the daily comic-strip, an award-winning web site and a best-selling publishing program.

Anybody who works in an office or deals with bureaucracy relates to Dilbert's plight. Created by Scott Adams, Dilbert addresses issues ranging from office-envy/challenges to new technology - and the mayhem they produce. Dilbert features a rich cast of characters, including his sidekick Dogbert, his inept Boss, and his co-workers Wally and Alice. Primary target group for the property is adults 18-49 years old - affluent, educated and technology savvy.

The Dilbert daily comic strip appears in 2.000 newspapers in 65 countries worldwide in 25 different languages. More than 20 million Dilbert books and calendars have been sold in North America alone; several titles cumulatively spending over one year on The New York Times Best Seller List. The Dilbert Principle is categorically the best selling business book of all time.

Dilbert was also the first syndicated comic strip character to officially go online, and the strip was the first to contain its creator's e-mail address. The award-winning web site The Dilbert Zone attracts millions of visitors each month. A Dilbert television series premiered in 1999, with Scott Adams and Larry Charles (Mad About You, Seinfeld) as executive producers.

Working as a computer engineer, Scott Adams started drawing Dilbert doodles to "enliven boring staff meetings". The character soon became so popular that other people at the company started using the character in their presentations. A "name-the-nerd" contest soon followed, and Dilbert was the obvious winner. After a few years, a contract was made with United Media, and Dilbert - "a composite of my co-workers during the years", Adams says - went from doodles to dailies.

Since then, Scott Adams has been awarded several prestigious prizes, including the National Cartoonist Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year and Best Newspaper Comic Strip (1997); Prix d'Excellence for Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook from the Maxim Business Club, Paris (1998), and the prize for Best International Comic Strip at the International Comic-Salon, Erlangen, Germany (1998).

Says Emmy Award winning Larry Charles, writer/producer of the Dilbert TV series: "Dilbert is a big Kafkaesque story of a little, logical man in a big, illogical world". In an environment where all bosses and many co-workers are heartless and stupid parasites, Dilbert stands out as the engineer with an active imagination and a His true love? Technology. Dilbert loves technology for the sake of technology; In fact, he loves technology more than people – he'd rather surf the Internet than Waikiki.

Dilbert's dog Dogbert is no man's best friend. His not-so secret ambition is to conquer the world and enslave all humans - whom he feels have been placed on this earth to amuse him. Dig deep enough below his fur, and you'll find a cynical, arrogant conniving little mutt with his paw on the pulse of the absurdity of corporate culture.

Gilbert on Dilbert
How Not To Succeed In Business & Life

Years ago in Cleveland I saw the musical "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," mail clerk J. Pierpont Finch's hilarious romp up the corporate ladder. I remember using that experience as a take-off point for a sermon on business ethics - with the president and vice-president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce in the congregation. I was young and foolhardy then. Now I am old and foolhardy -- as once again I attempt to enter a world in which I have had little experience, but about which I have many opinions.

Cartoonist Scott Adams in his strip Dilbert has updated "how to succeed" and created a primer on how not to succeed in business and in life. The Dilbert Principle is that "the most ineffective people are moved to the place where they can do the least amount of damage: management."

In Gilbert on Dilbert I suggest instead the Gilbert Principle - that our most important real life task is management - the management of meaning in our lives.

I am convinced that good cartoonists, as few others, have their pulse on the Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times.

Scott Adams' cartoon critique of management has become the talk of the town. Dilbert's boss comes in for most abuse. For example, Adams parodies a management buzz word, reengineering, about which the boss says, "Everybody's doing it. We'd better jump under the bandwagon before the train leaves the station." Mixed metaphors are always dangerous.

Have you ever written a mission statement? Been there, done that. In another strip he satirizes the omnipresent mission statement, which he defines as "a long awkward sentence that demonstrates management's inability to think clearly."

The Boss says, "I took a crack at writing a 'mission statement' for our group.

'We enhance stockholder value through strategic business initiatives by empowered employees working new team paradigms.'"

Dilbert: "Do you ever just marvel at the fact we get paid to do this?"

The Boss: "Did anybody bring donuts?"

One of Adams' E-mail correspondents demonstrated the observation that Dilbert is more documentary than satire. "My boss actually said to me 'Let's bubble back up to the surface and smell the numbers.' I had no idea what it meant." As Adams says, "No matter how absurd I try to make the comic strip, I can't stay ahead of what people are experiencing in the workplace."

Though he was fired from his job in corporate America, Adams personally thinks that corporate downsizing often does make the workplace more efficient - fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations - he nonetheless makes that phenomenon the target of many of his barbs.

One strip begins with a boss announcing he will be using humor to ease tensions caused by trimming the work force.

'I've decided to use humor in the workplace. Experts say humor eases tension which is important in times when the workforce is being trimmed. "Knock, knock," says the boss.

"Who's there?" asks a hapless worker.

"Not you anymore," responds the grinning boss.

But Adams' cynicism about human nature does not stop with the boss. Co-workers also seem to be caught up in this absurd work culture. A group of workers gather around another's desk.

One says,

"We're sorry to hear you're getting laid off, Bruce. We calculated that if ten of your friends here took ten percent pay cuts, then the company can keep you."

Bruce: "Gosh! You'd do that for me?"

"No, we're here to look at your office furniture."

What is the gospel according to Dilbert? There are times when Scott Adams becomes a prophet, skewering perceived injustice, mocking dehumanizing practices that are too close to reality for comfort. He writes about a familiar corporate mantra: "'Employees are our most valuable asset.' On the surface this statement seems to be at odds with the fact that companies are treating their "most valuable assets" the same way a leaf blower treats leaves. How can this apparent contradiction be explained?"

He treats this issue in a cartoon in which the boss admits he was mistaken that "employees are our most valuable asset." Actually, he explains, "they're ninth." "Eighth place?" someone asks. "Carbon paper," says the boss.

After a particular "downsizing" there were unused work cubicles which the company decided to hire Dogbert Construction to retrofit them and rent them out to the state as a prison.

Dilbert: "I don't think it's fair to put convicts in our spare cubicles."

Dogbert: "Don't be such a bigot. These people have made one little mistake. Otherwise, they're just like employees."

Dilbert: "I think there are a few differences."

Dogbert: "Yeah, their health care is better."

How are we to assess Adams? Is he prophet or embittered employee getting back at his former bosses? I think Adams is no prophet but a social critic. He has a totally cynical view of human nature. His characters are not suffering from paranoia, people are out to get them -- from the boss to the stockholders to their fellow-workers. These characters are totally self-interested, with no discernible trace of altruism.

One reporter asked him, "Are you as cynical as you seem?" "Yes. I don't think what I'm doing is based on rage, but I'm terribly amused by the absurd.

The absurdity stands out more in a business setting because there's an expectation that people will act rationally. But people aren't rational."

Whether or not Dilbert is true to life, it is close enough that millions of people read it daily. In one survey of workers indicate that 87% say their workplace is a "pleasant environment," but Adams responds, "If you're in an absurd situation and you're not changing it, then you define it as being OK."

And it is true that more than 70% of workers report stress on the job, suggesting that there may well be a kind of suppressed rage in America's workplaces. Dilbert's problem is that he is totally dehumanized by his work environment. Certainly my conversations with many of you indicate that working isn't what it used to be - that work has become an ordeal - that it is robbing people not only of their time, but also of their human dignity.

For such people Dilbert is a pleasant catharsis. But Adams has been roundly criticized by more radical cartoonists as being "on the side of the ruling class," betraying "millions of insecure and beleaguered office workers" who consider him their champion. It is "not very radical commentary to say 'Boy, aren't bosses dumb.' There's no analysis, even in a goofy way, of why bosses act the way they do.

It's 'Boy is my boss dumb,' but not 'Boy, is this huge company stupid for doing this merger and laying off half its employees and devastating the local economy and shipping the jobs to Mexico or Indonesia.' Criticizing stupid bosses without putting them in context is like complaining because it gets dark at night without understanding that the earth revolves around the sun. It's a really limited view. It doesn't go anywhere. It's just a safety valve."

I confess I am somewhat suspicious of Adams' credentials as the prophet of the workplace. I withhold that status from anyone who in critiquing the corporation has become one, anyone who proudly admits he has always wanted "to make as much money as I could....If you can write on it, if it will hold a label, it's a prime target for licensing. You can't get to overexposure without getting to filthy rich first."

What is disturbing in Dilbert is the relative equanimity with which the office workers accept their plight. Passivity is their chief character trait. They seem to be automatons who do not so much live in, as simply respond to, their environment.

One wonders if painting this humorous picture of their ineptitude, their shallowness of life, their willingness to go along with absurdity, is a step on the way to ending the insanity. Or does it simply help them deal with it by laughing at it?

After all, CEO's and management consultants post the cartoons on their office bulletin boards - how penetrating can this critique be if the targets simply divert the satirical arrows with a laugh? Adams says they always think he's pointing the finger at somebody else. Does Dilbert merely co-opt workers who ought to be struggling to humanize their work environment instead of making the best of their dehumanization?

Adams seems to be ambivalent on his role. On the one hand he defends himself by saying "anything which can be mocked will not last...." but who is to say it won't last? And, on the other, he says, "My goal is not to change the world. My goal is to make a few bucks and hope you laugh in the process." He is hoisted on the petard of his own cynicism.

What is going to stop our thoughtless, dangerous, headlong dash into the 21st century in which work once more becomes drudgery - albeit a high tech one - a drudgery which increasingly consumes our lives.

In the mid-1990's the Apple Macintosh development team wore T shirts proclaiming "90 hours a week and loving it!" Is that the kind of brave new world we want? We seem caught up in a momentum about which many of us complain, but about which we seem to be able to do little or nothing. We accept the new oppression with nary a critical word - so fearful are we for our jobs.

Now the cartoonist, of course, is not really supposed to be a social revolutionary, but is Adams helping sustain a workplace environment which so often saps the human spirit by merely encouraging us to laugh at it?

Or is he launching a long-overdue conversation about the place of work in human life? Is Adams helping or hindering our headlong dash into the brave new world where we live faster and faster, with more and more, for less and less meaning?

In 1987 social critic Jeremy Rifkin uttered these prophetic words:

"We have quickened the pace of life only to become less patient. We have become more organized but less spontaneous, less joyful. We are better prepared to act on the future but less able to enjoy the present and reflect on the past."

Is that to be the culmination of our evolution as spiritual creatures? That our work will suck the life force from us, as it did for Scott Adams. Are you happy in your work? Does it add meaning to your life? If so, good. If not, what are you, what can you, do about it?

The Dilbert solution of supine acquiescence in absurdity is a spiritually fatal position. It is a study in how not to succeed in the business of life. Adams offers us no hope. The Gilbert principle is that we need to manage the meaning of our lives in the workplace - for it is there, increasingly, that humanity's fate is being decided. It would not be not enough for me to endure the absurdity of the workplace, to find a humorous "haven in a heartless world." It is our task to make that world less heartless.


Business Week, 5/27/96, 46.
U.S. News and World Report, 4/22/96, 77.
Fortune, 5/13/96, pp. 99-110.
Newsweek, 8/12/96, pp. 52-57.
Windows, 5/95, reprinted in Utne Reader, 7-8/95, 88-9.
Salon - on line
USA Weekend, 7/26-28/96, 10, and 3/21-23/97, 18.
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 2/23/97, 1E.

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