Scott Adams’ award winning Dilbert comic strip is alive and well 30 years after its debut in 1989. Today, I see cut outs of the comic strip hiding in nooks and crannies of all kinds of organizations and, though I am loath to admit it, they have even popped up over the years where I have worked!
Why do we love Dilbert? Is it because we must bow down in real life to a Pointy-Haired Boss (aka PHB) who is sort-of-nice, but absolutely clueless? Maybe we recognize a real-life Wally in our place of work. You know the guy who walks around all day with a coffee cup in hand, completely non-productive, very disruptive, spreading apathy, hopelessness, and despair? Perhaps we identify with Alice who really does care, but whose frustration will eventually reward her with a heart attack. Do you recognize the helpless Dilbert where you work?
Unfortunately, Dilbert characters are not just creations of fantasy by Mr. Adams. In fact, he based them all upon real people with whom he once worked at Pacific Bell. Wally was a real-life person who wanted to avail himself of the generous severance packages being offered by his company during a period of downsizing, so he did everything he could to get fired.
He was frustrated in his quest for termination and survived until his actual retirement. (See Scott Adams’ books “Seven Years of Highly Defective People” and “What Would Wally Do”). These characters should not have been allowed to breed, but alas their offspring now exist in some Fairbanks organizations. Hanging Dilbert cartoons behind doors and on bulletin boards will not solve the problems these real characters are wreaking throughout our local businesses, agencies, and nonprofits.
Top management, (seldom seen in Dilbert cartoons), must take responsibility for being visible — without micromanaging — and for constantly articulating the organization’s vision, values, and goals. Top management must be sure that everyone … and I mean everyone … knows how their work contributes to the overall success of the organization and the achievement of its shared vision.
At Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher knew the names of every Southwest employee including the airplane cleaners! Once each month he took a day off from being CEO to become a flight attendant, baggage handler, or ticket agent in order to stay in touch with his workforce and customers. What top management does speaks so loudly, no one hears what they say. If you are a top manager then lead by example.
In order to execute strategy and achieve organizational goals top management must be absolutely certain that middle managers are trained to motivate and empower those whom they supervise. “Supervising” means “Serving”. If a middle manager is a PHB (see definition in paragraph two above) and is a roadblock rather than an engine of value added, then (s)he must be fired. Fired, not just kicked upstairs.
Once the Pointy Haired Boss is properly trained and motivated, then (s)he is responsible for coaching Wally. Work with Wally by training him and coaching him on the organization’s vision and his place in it. If he does not come around then coach him again in writing. If he still does not come around then continue following up your coaching with documentation until your personnel department gives you the green light to fire him.
Again, really fire him. Do not let Wally run loose in your organization. His toxic touch will infect your entire workforce. Everyone already knows what Wally is doing and if he is not dealt with, your entire workforce will eventually loose total respect for both the organization and its leadership. Be assured that Wally does not get better with age; he just breeds more Wally’s.
If you work with a Pointy Haired Boss then get “mad as heck” and don’t take it anymore. Cut out this column today and anonymously nail it to your PHB’s door tomorrow.
Alice and Dilbert gratefully helped ghost-write this column. You might just see them nailing this on their PHB’s door in a future comic strip.
Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is provided as a public service of the UAF Applied Business Department.