Is it really that bad?
Abuse in the Workplace (Parts 1-4)
© Douglas E. Welch 1997
I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to address the
Dilbert Factor when discussing computer careers. Dilbert is the
comic creation of cartoonist Scott Adams. His wit and wisdom is
legend in most offices, especially among those people I like to
call "The Cubicle Corp." I remember these people fondly although
I finally made my own escape from this fabric wall fantasy world.
They are the people that keep most companies operating, often
in spite of those around, or above, them.
As entertaining as Dilbert is, though, I feel I need to address
the real issues that Mr. Adams and his geeky creations are seeking
to illuminate. While it is fun to laugh, I think we can also learn
a bit about our companies, our bosses, our co-workers and ourselves.
Is it really that bad?
As with all comedy, Dilbert is funny because it is extreme. Were
there truly a company that had all the problems of Dilbert's,
it would have gone out of business long ago. This is not to say
that the topics aren't ripped from today's employee handbooks.
Dilbert is funny because we all relate to what is going on in
his world. We have all probably fell victim to one or two of the
absurdities shown in the comic.
Sometimes when we are in the throes of "one of those days," we
think that life is a Dilbert world. Everything is absurdity and
there is nothing we can do about it. This is, of course, an exaggeration.
We all need to maintain a little perspective about our jobs, as
hard as that may be sometimes. We need to think back on the good
things that have happened, those projects that have been successful,
and then try and find a way to fix the current problem. It certainly
won't be easy, but neither will it be the Sisphysian* task that
Dilbert faces every day.
One major trait that separates us from Dilbert and friends is
our reaction to adversity. Most of the comic characters are so
jaded and cynical that, rather than work, they devise a myriad
of ways to please the boss without actually performing any useful
Not only that, they make no effort to actually get out of the
environment they are in. No one is looking for a new job. No one
is exploring new possibilities. I personally hope that none of
you are in that position. If so, GET OUT NOW! There is little
so damaging to your self-esteem and personal life than a job that
is sucking the life out of you. Laugh at Dilbert all you want,
but make sure you don't become him.
Next Week: Bosses and their habits.
*Sysiphus - a character from Greek Mythology that spent his days
pushing a huge boulder to the top of a large hill each day, only
to see it roll to the bottom each night.
Bosses and their habits
This week we explore the Dilbert world by looking at bosses and
how they are perceived by their employees. Dilbert's "pointy-haired"
boss seems the epitome of uncaring, unwilling and unknowing manager.
When he isn't actively thwarting the work of his employees, he
is unknowingly undermining their moral and will to perform. Once
again, Scott Adams shows the extreme in order to illuminate and
entertain. The reality is somewhere between the "pointy-haired"
boss and the ideal.
What is he/she thinking?
One of the most common boss/employee problems is seemingly arbitrary
behavior on the part of the boss. Everyone seems to understand
the proper solution to a problem but the boss makes a decision
that is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. While you might
think the boss is just clueless, there are probably larger forces
at work here. Namely, your boss' boss. We might not like to believe
it, but our managers have solutions dictated to them from above,
just as they sometimes do to their employees. In fact, there is
usually a correlation between the two events.
Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that our manager is
totally in control of his or her own destiny. In reality, they
are still someone's employee even though they are at a higher
level. The major problem with the "clueless" boss is not ignorance
but their failure to communicate reality to their employees. Were
they to explain to their employees how decisions were being made,
the blame would fall less on them and more on those above them,
where it belongs.
This is not to say, though, that all problems come from above.
Some managers are just "clueless" and refuse to admit it. They
may blame problems on their superiors dictates even when it is
they, themselves who made the erroneous decision. These bosses
are harder to detect, but they come with a unique self-destruct
mechanism. As soon as they make enough bone-head decisions, they
are either moved up or out. While you might think they can cause
bigger problems if they are in a higher level position, the truth
is that they can also be watched more closely by the higher-ups
to which they report. Obviously, moving them out is the best possible
solution because then they become someone else's problem.
The King Midas
Often, bosses will come to the conclusion that they have to touch
everything in order for it to be of any worth. They have to rewrite
every report, check every computer connection, review every memo,
etc. What they are really telling their employees is that they
are not trusted. In some cases, employees can prove they are trustworthy,
but in others, the manager will never delegate tasks beyond the
most mundane. Again, though, a self-destruct mechanism is at work
here. When everything in a department has to be funneled through
one manager there are inevitable delays and missed deadlines.
Enough of these and the manager will quickly learn that they will
have to delegate or depart. Business waits for no one, despite
how much of a Midas touch they think they might have.
Next Week: Let's get serious
Let's get serious
You might not think that a business discussion using Dilbert would
have a serious side but given today's work environment, I want
to discuss the Abusive Boss. While we may dislike the decisions
our managers make and even detest our manager as a person, most
of us are free from this, the worst possible, of all bosses.
What is considered abuse?
As much as Dilbert's co-workers detest their "pointy-haired" boss,
you have never seem him shout obscenities at them. You have never
seen him striking someone and you have never really seen any of
them in fear for their safety. Abusive bosses can and do use all
of these tactics, to the detriment of all those around them.
On-the-job abuse can range from shouting to physical intimidation
to even physical violence if someone is out of control. While
there has been a dramatic and important increase in the understanding
of sexual harassment in the workplace, those managers that use
other methods of intimidation are just as dangerous.
Everyone has to make their own personal judgment about what they
consider office abuse. To some, a manager who yells at people,
in front of other employees might be considered abusive. Others
might place their limit at the use of obscenities and insults.
Still others might consider anything short of assault as permissible
in the workplace.
Whatever your limits, it is important to recognize an abusive
boss and begin working on a solution. You may notice this behavior
right away when joining a company or department, while other employees
may have just resigned themselves to it. Don't allow yourself
to become complacent, though. You will need to make a decision
regarding your job quickly. You do not want to become like the
others and spend your career in fear of an abusive manager.
What to do?
It is important to confront an abusive manager at the first instance
of this behavior. I have been in the position where I have had
to walk away from someone who was screaming at me because that
was the only way to end the explosion. I simply stated, "When
you have calmed down, we can talk." Later, I explained to them
that they had overstepped their limits with me and we came to
an agreement about behavior.
Obviously, I could have been fired on the spot, but I made the
decision that if I had to work with this person under those circumstances,
I would probably have quit on my own. We all have to be willing
to place limits on abusive behavior, even if it means leaving
a job. No job is worth being abused.
My experiences with office abuse have been fairly mild but I have
had acquaintances relate stories to me that would have sent me
to the police. If a manager ever threatens your safety or actually
assaults you, do not hesitate to call in the authorities. It might
just prevent you from being injured or worse. Employers are purchasing
your time and your intelligence when they hire you. They do not
purchase your rights or your safety.
Next Week: Coping with the smaller problems.
Coping and Growing
While Dilbert's managers might seem to come from a living hell
on earth, most real world managers are not that bad. It may seem
they are on any given day, but when we look at the overall picture,
they are only as bad as we let them be. There are various strategies
for coping with some problem bosses, but the final choice is always
yours. If a manager is truly annoying, then you might have to
make the decision to leave or move to another department. While
it might seem frightening, it is more frightening to spend your
career with someone you dislike.
Giving them what they want
In most cases, managers have a very clear idea what they want
from their employees. They want these forms, or those results
or this attitude. Whether their ideas are valid or not is a moot
point. If you want to successfully work for this manager, you
will need to bend to their rules and desires.
This is not to say that you can't control your own personal world.
Perhaps you want to keep records in a different way than your
manager. You can do just this, but make sure you give your manager
the information they want, in the form they want it. While it
might seem like more work, in reality, you will probably be more
effective in your job and your manager will still be happy.
We all have to make small adjustments to fit into our managers
world and we all need to be flexible enough to make them. This
is not to say that we shouldn't try to make changes for the better.
We may just have to couch them in small, easily digestible bites
for our managers.
Influencing your manager
Once you have a clear idea about what your manager wants and their
vision of the future, you can begin making suggestions for change.
Make sure you have a clear understanding of your manager's goals
and usual working habits. Proposing something that is totally
outside your managers ken will nearly always result in them dismissing
the idea out of hand.
Propose many small changes, over time, rather than one grand change,
all at once. Smaller changes are easier for most people to adapt
to and they create less anxiety among both management and staff.
Realize that it might take a long time for the department to change.
Movement is the goal, not revolution.
In the movie, WarGames, the climax of the film is dependent on
the large computer understanding the concept of futility. Unfortunately,
some employees still do not realize that trying to encourage change
in some areas is, indeed, futile. We should all try our best at
our jobs, but there comes a time in every career when we begin
to think, "I have done all the good here I can do." This can be
a frightening experience because it upsets our comfortable lives.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we need sometimes. We need
something to break us out of our complacency and allow us to jump
to the next level of our lives. Futility doesn't mean we have
failed, it means we have grown.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org