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Clues For The Cluelessness: Making Sense Of Work
You're not alone if work often seems crazy. A lot of people ponder the same questions. Why do so many managers emphasize appearances and politics over productivity? Why do organizations squander motivation and loyalty by treating employees like garbage? Why do companies keep jumping on new management fads even though the last ones bombed? Why are there so many silly rules and procedures that constantly undermine productivity? Why do so many managers say one thing while doing the opposite? Did they all learn the ropes at hypocrisy school? This book provides some answers that help you make more sense of your job and your workplace.
Bosses from hell abound in movies and comic strips. In film, sometimes they're arrogant, evil men (like Jon Voight's swaggering villain in Enemy of the State, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, or the male chauvinist pig played by Dabney Coleman in Nine to Five). Other times, they're scheming shrews (like Sigourney Weaver as a cynical self-promoter in Working Girl, or the unforgettable classic of the genre, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Disclosure, an equal-opportunity film, offered bad bosses of both genders: Donald Sutherland as a slick and slimy chief executive officer (CEO), along with Demi Moore as a viciously manipulative fast-tracker. Narrow-minded, bureaucratic administrators are automatic features of any movie set in schools (Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds, The Breakfast Club, and many more). In the daily comics, you find a series of bumblingtyrants: Mr. Dithers in Dagwood, Sarge in Beetle Bailey, the king in Wizard of ID. The ultimate 1990s example is Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. Old pointy-hair is so technically challenged that he can't tell a laptop computer from an Etch-a-Sketch. When he heard that the company needed more Unix programmers, he thought they wanted eunuchs. The misunderstanding almost produced an eerie new surgical benefit for the male staff. Are bosses really that dumb? It must seem that way to a lot of Dilbert fans. And to the growing number of disenchanted employees who are erecting websites to vent their many complaints about work in general or their company in particular. Daniel Levine's Disgruntled site features an online magazine devoted to stories of dumb bosses and workplace folly. You could probably contribute a few tales of your own.
Dilbert draws millions of readers daily into a workplace that is both bizarre and familiar. Everyone is clueless, cynical, or both. No one knows the goals. Decisions are rarely made, and productive work is as likely as snow in Honolulu. Employees spend most of their time avoiding work, criticizing their bosses, or producing useless garbage in response to mindless directives. Customers are ignored. Bosses and subordinates are at war. Same for engineers and marketers. The human resource department is hostile to people, and everyone hates the accountants. Yet Dilbert's loyal readers often say that they like the strip because it tells the truth!
There's a certain smug satisfaction in believing that everyone is clueless but me and thee. It's easy to criticize your parents until you have kids. It's equally convenient to bash bosses until you get promoted. If you want work to mean something but your job is relentlessly tedious, it feels good to blame someone almost any handy target will do. In a perfect world, work would be reasonably sensible and orderly: Go to work, do your duty, and go home. Even such minimal expectations are rarely met. Co-workers arrive with their unique charms and foibles. Some days it's tough to string together a few lucid moments in an office dominated by mood swings, bodily yearnings, emotional conflicts, and personal quirks. Bosses are universal scapegoats, but we all deserve some of the blame. We know things are fouled up, but we're usually clueless about how to make them better. Deep down, we yearn for something better that seems just out of reach.
We're organizationally handicapped because modern workplaces are too complicated for us to understand them. Think of the worst subject you ever encountered at school the tough slog that made you feel like a terminal dolt: Ms. Hardy's high-attrition algebra course, or Professor Wittgenstein's impenetrable rendition of organic chemistry. Work is often like that. You arrive at the office and blow a few pop quizzes before the morning coffee break. Generally no one notices your lapses because everyone's groping around in the same fog. Year after year some of the best and brightest managers maneuver or meander their way to the top of great enterprises. Then they manage to do really dumb things. Like the loyal son who made sure his dad would live in history by naming a car after him. It was called the Edsel. Or the General Motors boss who persuaded his unions to take a pay cut and then announced big bonuses for top executives. Or the guys at IBM who couldn't see how a tiny company run by a boyish geek named Bill Gates would ever be much of a threat.
How do bright people manage to be so dim? One theory is that they're too bright for their own good. Mortimer Feinberg and John Tarrant, in their book Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), gave it a fancy name the Self-Destructive Intelligence Syndrome. Feinberg, a psychologist, thinks smart people act stupid because of personality flaws things like pride, arrogance, and unconscious needs to fail. In their book When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), William and Kathleen Lundin came to a similar conclusion: "[Bosses'] dumb behavior is motivated by self-love and ego, which block the capacity for empathy." Psychic flaws have been plain enough in brilliantly self-destructive people like Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and, as you probably noticed, Bill Clinton. But on the whole, the intellectually challenged have at least as many psychological problems as the best and brightest. The real source of cluelessness is not personality or I.Q. It's in how we think and how we make sense of the world around us. Regardless of intellectual wattage, we're all out to lunch if we use the wrong ideas for the situation at hand. It's like trying to find your way around San Francisco with a map of New York. Both cities have roads, tall buildings, and water, but that won't keep you from getting hopelessly lost. When we see a distorted picture, we do the wrong thing. But we'll probably stick with our map if it's the only one we've got. So our blinders mask our mistakes. We insist that everything is humming along. Or, if it's not, at least it's not our fault.
FRANK 'N' HOPE: WORKING WITH DOLTS
Frank: It's not my fault if I work with dolts.
Hope: You included?
Frank: Rarely. But I'm always looking for some smart company. Maybe you're not as dumb as you look.
Confusion mushrooms as the world keeps becoming more complicated. Lots of bright, well-meaning people keep producing improvements programmable VCRs, new computer software, multinational corporations, roaming charges, leveraged buyouts, telemarketing, and new tax laws to name only a few. But progress only seems to plunge us deeper into a dense fog. As Scott Adams puts it in The Dilbert Principle (New York: HarperBusiness, 1996, p. 9): "All the technology that surrounds us, all the management theories, the economic models that predict and guide our behavior, the science that helps us live to eighty it's all created by a tiny percentage of deviant smart people. The rest of us are treading water as fast as we can. The world is too complex for us. Evolution didn't keep up. We got knowledge and technology before we got intelligence. We're a planet of nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilization that was designed by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants."
The deviant smart folks have created a world that floods us with information. We often feel we're drinking from a fire hydrant. A nonstop stream comes at us via television, newspapers, cell phones, fax, E-mail, the Internet, and just about every other form of communication except maybe smoke signals. It's almost impossible to make much sense of it all and even tougher to figure out how to act on the information we have. Lots of folks are eager to help, often at a hefty price. An army of experts consultants, politicians, journalists, academics, even the authors of this book pours out a torrent of ideas, answers, and solutions. No one can keep up, and it's tough to sort the garbage from the good stuff. As we become more informed, we get more confused. To escape bewilderment, we grab any idea that seems to make things clearer. It could be reengineering, enterprise computing, seven habits, The Celestine Prophecy, or the daily horoscope. Whatever. Then we clutch our new insight like a two-year-old hugging a Beanie Baby. We feel better because things appear to make more sense. But our security blanket is a mirage. We've donned a new pair of rose-colored glasses. Things look simpler because the lenses filter out a lot of complicated stuff that used to bug us. Sooner or later we crash into something we didn't see. Like the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Why worry about icebergs if you know your ship is unsinkable?
Until the inevitable crash, misguided managers think they're very smart. An example: Sewell Avery, CEO of the then-giant retailer Montgomery-Ward, refused to spend money on expansion after World War II. He sat by and watched while his company sat out the world's biggest orgy of consumer spending. In the decade after the war, sales at archrival Sears doubled. Ward's went down 10 percent. Avery was clueless. But not dumb. After all, he'd steered Montgomery-Ward very successfully through the depression of the 1930s. After the war, though, he bet on the wrong guru a famous economist who thought the economy looked pretty shaky. It made sense to Avery because he'd studied history. He noticed that war often led to depression. Avery had charts in his office going all the way back to Napoleon to prove it. The smart thing, he figured, was to keep Ward's cash safe in the bank while the other fools spent themselves into bankruptcy. If the Great Depression had repeated itself, he could have made the managers' Hall of Fame. It didn't. He ended up in the Hall of Shame instead.
It's easy to catalogue managerial folly, but rarely does anyone admit to going blindly down the wrong path. One of the very few public examples is Robert McNamara, architect of U.S. strategy in the Vietnam war. Thirty years later, he concluded that he and his White House colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong." He reluctantly conceded that they didn't really know what was going on in Vietnam, though they thought they did. Part of their problem was a subtle information gap most of the top experts on Vietnam had been forced out of government during the McCarthy era. Despite incomplete information, McNamara and fellow policy-makers had embraced a concept that seemed sensible. They remembered Munich, where Neville Chamberlain had tried to secure "peace in our time" by letting Hitler annex a big chunk of Czechoslovakia. Appease "the Reds," their thinking went, and the Communists will take all of Asia like Hitler's Nazis in Europe. A lot of people died for that flawed vision. Everybody since has been trying to avoid another Vietnam, which in due time may produce another Munich. The signs of the times are usually hard to read and even harder to interpret. It's easy to get confused by false glimmers anchored in old assumptions.
Confusion isn't so damaging if you realize you're not playing with a full deck. Most of us have enough sense not to handle our own legal affairs, diagnose our ills, or fill our own cavities. We usually pay attention to visible signs with clear messages like "danger qualified technicians only risk of injury or violent and painful death!!!" Unfortunately, most workplaces don't post such obvious warnings, and there's rarely a qualified technician on duty. Many self-proclaimed experts are actually as bewildered as the rest of us, but firmly convinced of their own delusions. Sometimes they're more dangerous than the problems they claim to solve, because their self-assured muddling digs us into an even deeper hole. Too bad consultants don't always subscribe to the physician's Hippocratic Oath: Above all else, do no harm.
FRANK 'N' HOPE : CONSULTANTS
Frank: Can you believe what they're paying the consultants they just brought in?
Hope: Maybe they can help. You always say this place is a dung pit.
Frank: You haven't seen the endless parade. Tailored suits. Glib talk. Big fees. No help. You know the story about consultants. They borrow your watch, tell you the time, and keep the watch. Stick around. You'll see.
Hope: Maybe. But when your kids are sick, do you treat them yourself?
Frank: No need. The insurance covers everything.
So how do we escape the cluelessness trap? For starters, it helps to recognize that it comes in different forms. One is personal cluelessness. It comes from not knowing enough about ourselves, our actions, or our impact on other people. The symptoms are blindness and hypocrisy. Our actions are counterproductive because we don't know what we're doing. Others think we're pretending to be something we're not. The escape route is via learning about ourselves and getting better at understanding the people we work with.
A second kind of cluelessness is situational. This is what we suffer when our work world is too complicated, and we latch on to ideas that aren't as good as they seem. The only way out is to get smarter. Not by pumping out a few more points on an IQ test (though that couldn't hurt). But instead by upgrading our intellectual toolbox with better ideas to bring focus to a fuzzy world. At work, our ideas fail us in several key areas. We're often baffled by structure and systems, which are complicated and getting more so. We're also mystified, and often appalled by ongoing political games of power and self-interest. They persist everywhere despite our best efforts to purge them or push them under a rug. If that's not enough, there's the challenge of decoding culture and symbols, the subtle but powerful traditions and folkways that play a powerful role in every family, group, and workplace.
Deepest and toughest to deal with is spiritual cluelessness. We're spiritually clueless when we're not sure about our beliefs, our values, or the life path we really want to follow. The only remedy is to come to grips with basic questions all of us need to answer: What does our life mean? What values should we live by? What are we here to do? Modern workplaces offer little help in finding answers to these perplexing queries. As a result, too many of us drift along with little sense of direction and without a moral compass to guide us through the ethically slippery world of work. This deepens our discouragement about work and, ultimately, about life. You probably know people who are situationally smart but spiritually bankrupt. Take the aforementioned canine consultant Dogbert. He easily manipulates gullible humans around him, but he's ethically stunted, even downright evil. In one of the more famous Dilbert strips, Dogbert explains a new device for firing employees: the "can-o-matic." Situated in restroom stalls, this technological wonder randomly slaps pink slips on employees' backs and flings them out the window. The boss likes the idea, but wishes he could see the expression on people's faces as they fly out of the building. No problem, says Dogbert. They'll just add a video camera.
The wellsprings of cluelessness won't run dry anytime soon, and we're all vulnerable. If you're hoping for miracles, quick-and-easy recipes, or a fast track to stock options and executive jets, check your antenna. You are not getting the right picture. We're not selling quick fixes. We try to offer provocative and productive ideas to help you make more sense of what goes on around you. It will take effort and persistence. If you stay with us, you should discover order, even beauty, you never knew your workplace had. Even better, you'll have more fun and get more done.
Escaping Cluelessness I: Facing the problem
* Work is often confusing and chaotic
* We need to understand why we're clueless and what we can do about it
We're at risk of three forms of cluelessness:
* We don't know ourselves
* We don't know what's going on
* We don't know where we're going
Copyright © 2001 Liz Winfield. All rights reserved.