Moving Toward an Anti-Dilbert Workplace

Building Tomorrow Today, April 25, 2001

Dave E. Redekopp

Life-Role Development Group Limited

The Punch Line

Allow me to begin this talk with a story that encapsulates most of what I am about to say. Years ago I bumped into the world of career development due to a nudge by a classmate, Kris Magnusson. Kris introduced me to Barrie Day at the Career Development Institute (later the Centre for Career Development Innovation and now the Career Development Department of Concordia University College of Alberta), and he contracted me to work on a couple of projects. Too quickly thereafter, Kris took on a position at the University of Calgary. I applied for the position he left behind, resulting in an interview with Barrie. Those of you who know Barrie will immediately understand that the interview involved Barrie talking for about 45 minutes, me nodding my head at the appropriate times, and Barrie asking if I had any questions. I don’t remember having any questions, so the interview was over. Barrie got up from his chair, extended his hand and said "You’re the guy for the job. Welcome aboard--start thinking about your successor."

I don’t remember the content of Barrie’s 45-minute rant, but "start thinking about your successor" has since haunted my career. Ponder for a moment the implications of this statement. With this simple phrase, Barrie was telling me:

One phrase resulted in these nine career development "interventions." It also resulted in nine organizational development "interventions." For those of you who might have to leave early, this is the punch line for the talk: Career development processes work most effectively, and contribute the most to organizational development, when they are integrated or infused into the day-to-day workings of the organization.


Our current state of low unemployment is leading many employers to focus on the obvious: employees are important. It is a seller’s labour market at the moment, and employees know it. Career development professionals need to make use of this situation; employers are willing to hear expertise regarding motivation, development and growth. Employers are concerned about productivity, retention, succession, loss of "corporate knowledge" and leadership, problem areas for which the career development field has viable, humane solutions. The current knee-jerk reactions to these problems, such as the implementation of reward systems, bonus systems and elaborate perquisite plans, are understandable but misguided. More punitive and manipulative measures, the core of the Dilbert comic strip material, are less understandable but equally misguided. Employers who wish to retain employees, enhance productivity, develop leadership and create an adaptable workforce need a different cliché by which to operate than "pay them and they will come."


In this talk, I will share my thoughts on what the career development field can offer employers and managers as they grapple with organizational development issues. I believe, and have some evidence to show, that the integration of career development concepts and practices within organizational practices will improve organizations’ "bottom lines," enhance organizations’ sustainability and create more humane, "anti-Dilbert" workplaces. I also want to describe what I think career development professionals need to do to help foster these types of workplaces. I’ll do all this in the form of clichés, adages or aphorisms (I’m not sure about the correct term for these common phrases!); belief tidbits that can guide our behaviour.


As an aside, let me point out that I have very mixed reactions to the Dilbert comic strips. I confess that I usually laugh when I read them, and I do so because they typically expose real kernels of organizational truth. On the other hand, I worry about Dilbert’s cultural effect because I think readers may come to believe that most organizations generally operate in a Dilbert-like fashion. This belief will lead to defeatism, helplessness, pessimism, etc.--not very helpful responses. I should also point out that Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, is not anti-business or anti-corporation--he has made it very clear that he is just anti-stupidity.



Begin as You Mean to Go On

This first saying sets the stage for a view I hold that underlies this discussion: Organizations that exist only to make a fast buck don’t interest me. The terms "organizational development" imply some measure of sustainability, some desire to be around for more than the short haul, an intention to change with changing times, conditions and needs. Everything I address will be within the context of sustainability as well as reasonably immediate profitability. Organizations that wish to be around in a few years need to look at their people in a different manner than those working simply for increased quarterly share prices.


The phrase "Begin as you mean to go on" raises a number of questions: Are the interventions we’re creating sustainable in good times and bad? What will be the impact of removing something later that we’re introducing now? There is a danger in establishing organizational practices that cannot be sustained within moderate or tough times. Allow me to pick on the numerous reward systems currently in use by employers in their attempts to motivate staff. Bonus systems, rewards and perquisites may keep some employees around right now (although this is arguable), but employers need to consider the sustainability of such initiatives. What will happen to employee motivation and morale when these systems need to be removed because conditions are less lucrative? We have seen the effects on employees of downsizing and efforts to "do more with less" when the going gets rough. Employees who have been accustomed to elaborate bonus, reward and training schemes quickly become de-motivated. The employees may stay with the organization, thereby solving a retention problem, but now the organization has to deal with enormous motivation and productivity issues when they have no money to do so. "Begin as you mean to go on" refers to the need to establish practices that will work in both good and bad times.


Let me pick on something probably more near and dear to the hearts of career development professionals: career development workshops, career counselling services and career development centres. Many organizations have adopted these interventions in the hopes of creating a more humane, motivational and productive work environment, and many career development organizations (including mine) have happily provided these types of services. I’m not going to argue that they shouldn’t be done because they’re difficult to sustain in rough economic times. I am going to ask, however, "To what do they lead?" and "What ‘goes on’ after they’re done?". I think we run into problems if we see these as interventions unto themselves rather than means to greater ends. To me, these are all introductory activities that set the stage for something more sustainable. And, our real impact on organizations lies in the "something more sustainable." Workshops and counselling services are simply our point of entry into the organization.


"Add-on" career development services serve three main functions:


The first two functions need no explanation for career development professionals. The third, however, requires some elaboration. If we are truly to connect career development and organizational development, we have to work at seamlessly integrating career development into daily operations of organizations. I will address this issue through the use of some examples.

Toyota. Spear and Bowen (1999) describe a process used by Toyota that integrates learning, working and responsibility. Consider a worker who is just learning to put front seats in a Toyota Corolla. Rather than putting the worker through a training program, Toyota pairs the worker with a supervisor who makes the expected outcomes of the task very clear--the seat should face squarely forward, four bolts should hold it in, and the bolts should be tightened to a specific torque specification. And, the supervisor informs the worker that it would be desirable to do this as quickly as possible. However, the supervisor tells the worker nothing about process. Rather, the worker is encouraged to figure out the best steps for reaching the outcomes quickly. As the worker tries various approaches (putting the bolts in clockwise, counterclockwise, crosshatch, etc.), the supervisor simply provides information about outcomes (how long it took, whether or not the seat is facing forward squarely, etc.). The worker uses this information to adjust his or her processes. Imagine if all work took this type of approach, and took it continuously (not just when learning a new task set)! Here we have the integration of learning and work. We also have much bigger career development issues being addressed: self-initiation and self-analysis. The worker is continuously being asked to analyse behaviour and its outcomes (self-analysis), and to try different things to see if they work better (self-initiation). I can think of few skill sets that are more central to career development than these.

Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA). I met an executive within CCRA who posts his schedule on the CCRA intranet. All of his staff can see when his meetings are and what they are about. Further, he does not invite staff to any meetings. All meetings (except those to do with human resource issues) are open to all staff, so staff have to choose which meetings to attend. A number of career development issues are addressed with this simple "intervention." Employees have to think about their work and how it relates to the bigger picture (the content of most of an executive’s meetings). Employees need to think strategically, not just operationally, about their work, where it is headed, and how it adds value. Employees need to take initiative to choose to attend meetings (and take the risk of finding themselves in an inappropriate meeting!). Employees need to take responsibility for not attending meetings that might be useful for them or the organization. All of these career development gains can emerge from one small operational change.

Earl’s. A friend’s daughter worked at an Earl’s restaurant last summer. Her first position was hostess. After an orientation to Earl’s, her supervisor filled her in on the functions of hostessing--activities such as finding out seating preferences (e.g., smoking vs. nonsmoking), and balancing seating so that servers had a fair distribution of customers. Then, he handed her a long list of standard industry lines for determining customers’ needs (e.g., Will that be smoking or nonsmoking?) and told her she could not use any of them. This frustrated her no end during the first few days, but after a while she learned to truly relate to customers and identify their needs in spontaneous and genuine ways. From a career development perspective, this young woman developed core competencies regarding service, one of the most universal transferable skill areas. She also learned the genuine side of relationship-building, a core career development competency set. Finally, she learned to take responsibility for her behaviour and its outcomes, a core of career development.


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:

Prior to launching any initiative or enhancing a current initiative within an organization:


You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make it Drink

When a horse is thirsty, it will drink&endash;no extra rewards or motivators are needed to get it to do so. However, when a horse is not motivated to drink, most efforts to get it to do so are futile or short-lived. Similarly, when employees want to work (and the vast, vast majority do), they will do so given some basic conditions. When employees are allowed to do work that is meaningful, that promotes their growth, that gives them responsibility, and that produces valuable outcomes, they will work. External rewards are unnecessary and may even be damaging. External rewards distract workers from the reasons they intrinsically wanted to work in the first place&endash;to contribute, to grow, to have value. Employers who wish to have motivated and productive employees will do far better to help employees create ways to grow, create and meaningfully contribute than they will to erect quick-fix bonus or reward systems.


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:


There is More than One Way to Skin a Cat

Each employee is unique. Although organizational systems need to be fair and equitable, employees should not be treated exactly the same. Each employee is motivated differently. The immediate manager’s role is to help each employee clarify these motivations and find ways to help employees fulfil these motivations on the work site. This does not mean having managers run around trying to cater to every employee’s whim. It means helping employees find meaning and satisfaction in the core of their work. By helping employees find "flair" in their work, all the "grunt" work that needs to be done will be done more effectively. Some organizations have gone as far as hiring career coaches who regularly work with employees to ensure their work remains satisfying, creative and productive. Although costly initially, this approach has been shown to reduce turnover rates substantially and more than a pay back the costs of the coaches. This approach raises questions, though: "Why are career coaches needed? What are the leaders within the organization doing?". Being an advocate of integrating career development with operational matters, I would much prefer to see organizational leaders playing the role of career coach (acknowledging that external coaches can be very helpful in getting the ball rolling).


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:


A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

Many career development and performance problems can be resolved by taking the time to select employees well in the first place. Although this is exceedingly difficult in times of severe labour shortages, organizational sustainability demands that employees are selected for the right reasons. Further, positive career development makes the same demand.

Most selection processes focus on competence to the exclusion of reviewing passion or motivation. Organizations that carefully assess the alignment between potential recruits’ passions and the ability to fulfil these passions within the workplace find that (a) they can train to fill the competence gaps quickly and efficiently because they have highly motivated learners and (b) they can focus their energies on the work that needs to be done rather than on ways to get employees interested in the work. Retention problems are much less of an issue for organizations that have accounted for passion in recruitment.


Practice Implication for Career Development Professionals:


If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

Many organizations do not recognize that they actively create morale and commitment problems by not involving employees in organizational direction-setting. Some do so with the best of intentions&endash;they want to let employees focus on their work and not be overburdened by thoughts of the organization’s future. By not making employees part of the direction-setting process, however, organizations risk losing employees who no longer feel that they are an active part of the organization. Employees who feel no ownership of the organization will quickly and easily move to another organization offering more favourable conditions. Employees who "own" (even if only conceptually) the organization or a team within the organization are much more committed than those who simply do what they are told. Below is an exceptional example.

U.S. Navy. Commander Abrashoff began his command of the U.S.S. Benfold by conducting one-to-one interviews with the entire crew of about 300. He asked each crew member three questions about working on the ship: What do you like? What do you not like? What changes would you make? Then, he gave them the authority to begin making changes. For example, most sailors do not like scraping rusty bolts. The suggestion to replace them with stainless steel was made by one of the sailors. Abrashoff asked the sailor to get cost estimates and, if costs were reasonable, to replace all the bolts on the ship. Another example: Scraping paint and repainting is an enormous part of working on a ship, and most sailors hate it. One sailor suggested contracting out the painting of the ship to a company that would provide a warranty. The sailor investigated and had the entire ship painted, with a multi-year warranty, for very little money. The list of changes that improved morale, motivation, competence and efficiency goes on and on (Abrashoff turned back 20% of his budget to the Navy in the first year as the Benfold became the most battle-ready Pacific ship in the U.S. Navy), but what does this have to do with career development?


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:


A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

Managers busy with day-to-day work often forget the value of the employees right in front of them. Under pressure, they stop noticing that both they and their employees are ordinary people with unique quirks, foibles and needs. Showing appreciation for employees in genuine ways is one of the most effective and least utilized retention strategy. Employees try to do their best (employees who drive to work thinking "How can I screw up everybody’s day?" are exceedingly rare!), they have lives outside of work, they have good times and bad times and they have their own pressures. Appreciating employees for who they are (not just how they perform), their life concerns, their needs at work and their motivations is essential for sustainable retention. No elaborate "appreciation systems" are needed here. Simple human courtesy (e.g., "Thanks for busting your butt to meet that client’s needs"), decency (e.g., paying full attention to an employee when he or she is talking) and flexibility (e.g., "Why don’t you skip out of here to catch your kid’s talent show at school&endash;we’ll find a way to cover you off") go a very long way. Also, appreciating the contexts in which employees work is enormously valuable. Employees will go the extra mile if they see their manager bending over backwards to get them the equipment they need to do their work. This appreciation of employee needs will go much farther than superficial rewards for good work.


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:


Always Wear Clean Underwear!

This may not be a true cliché, but it is worth paying attention to regardless. Managers within organizations set the example for how the organization operates, feels and presents itself. Many managers do not fully appreciate the significance of their behaviour on employees’ behaviour. Managers who complain about corporate decisions, who whine about "upper management," and who gossip about others create a culture of scepticism, helplessness and blurred boundaries. This culture can be very unpleasant to work within, and employees who would otherwise love their roles leave in search of better surroundings. Worse, employees get sucked into the culture and waste their time whining, gossiping, backstabbing, etc., rather than moving on with their own career development.


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:

  1. Teach managers optimism. Managers need to find a way to convince themselves that tomorrow may be a better day, and to communicate this to their staff. Optimism can be learned and practised!
  2. Encourage managers to watch their language. Have them be very conscious of what they say and how they say it. Grumbles and whines have the occasional place in life, but for the most part they act as cancerous growths within work units.
  3. Insist that managers walk the talk. Coach them to do what they ask their employees to do. If managers want employees to be positive, productive and satisfied, they need to find ways to be positive, productive and satisfied.
  4. Teach individual clients/employees when and how to "go numb from the neck up." Employees need help in selecting where their emotional energy will go. Many become absorbed by worries and concerns over which they have no control. The serenity prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous captures the key message here: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." "Going numb from the neck up," or not investing mental/emotional energy into uncontrollable situations, is a crude strategy for moving toward serenity.


It’s the Right Thing to Do

Having said all of the above, recognize that not all organizations should remain in operation. Organizations do not need to be democratic, but they do need to be civil, respectful, safe and humane, just because "it’s the right thing to do." Organizations that cannot generate profit (or, in the case of governments and not-for-profits, cannot provide adequate service) without sacrificing one of these characteristics probably should not be in business. Perhaps the environment is too competitive, the need for product is not sufficient or price sensitivities place the organization’s product/service out of reach. Regardless of the cause, employers and managers who believe they cannot be profitable without "Dilbertizing" their workplace need to take a deep breath, step back, and view the viability of the organization with fresh eyes.


Practice Implications for Career Development Professionals:


The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

This talk has focussed on career development efforts that are sustainable in good times and bad. The future is impossible to predict. Establishing systems that will not be sustainable in difficult times is risky. Not only are they difficult to quickly dismantle, but their removal can substantially de-motivate staff who otherwise would have been productive. When removed, career development initiatives that can be sustained only when prosperous further marginalise career development approaches as "nice-to-have" rather than "it’s-obvious-we-need-to-have." Notice that much of Dilbert’s focus is on flavour-of-the-month strategies used by employers and managers in desperate attempts to generate productivity. The move to an anti-Dilbert workforce begins by recognizing that positive career development can be a natural consequence of effective leadership, strategy and operations within organizations.


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