Excerpt from The Trouble With Dilbert


Forthcoming from
Common Courage

 

By late 1996, Dilbert characters and cartoons were central
to pep-talk booklets that Xerox was producing and distributing to employees. Dilbert
cartoon characters or complete Dilbert comic strips adorn nearly every page of the Xerox
employee guidelines, which include formulas like "Empowerment = Growth and
Productivity." In other words, the handbook explains, "Empowerment results in
Growth and Productivity."

Here’s some sample language: "Why a do-it-yourself
kit? Because nobody else can do it for you. And, because we believe that creating a truly
Empowering Work Environment is critical to your success and to Xerox’ success. We’re
serious. We can set the stage, clarify the concepts and provide the structure, but
ultimately, creating an Empowered Work Place is something you do yourself."

Like Scott Adams, the Xerox corporate voice presents the
Dilbert office environment as something negative. Also like Adams, the Xerox handbook says
that true empowerment of individuals could be measured by what good it does the corporate
coffers–"growth and productivity." (The "growth," of course, refers
only to the corporation’s growth.) Dilbert satire, Xerox declares, is beneficial "as
a reminder of what empowerment isn’t."

What, however, is "empowerment"? It’s something
that empowers people on the Xerox payroll to shed dysfunction, gain clarity, and function
more effectively to make money for the corporation. That is the sine qua non of
Dilbert-as-object-lesson, the Xerox handbook emphasizes: "It’s been demonstrated that
an Empowering Work Environment translates directly to improved business results and
increased employee satisfaction–things we all care about. There’s something in this for
everyone. Even the skeptics among us."

Indeed, corralling "even the skeptics among us"
is a corporate task that Dilbert imagery is well-positioned to assist. There’s little
point in denying that office work is often frustrating, dumb, demeaning. But what must be
blurred and denied is that top management is the worker’s adversary. The cartoonish
Dilbert symbols, secured by Xerox in this case, have been conscripted as troops in a
never-ending war: to mobilize employees for the corporate quest to enlarge the profit
margin.

Since Xerox workers are a highly schooled bunch, the
company manual gradually escalates its equations, reaching such algebra as
"Empowerment = Direction and Communication + Ownership + The Way We Work Growth and
Productivity."

"What’s In It For Xerox?" a headline in the
manual asks. The answer appears over a drawing of Dilbert: "Everything. A more
committed, more productive work force. One that’s closer to the customer and able to
implement decisions that meet customer needs and exceed customer expectations. As
we said–bottom line: Improved business results."

After drawing the cartoon that later became this book’s
foreword, Tom Tomorrow recalls, he "caught a predictable amount of flak from
apoplectic Dilbert fans who apparently considered this tantamount to heresy."
Tomorrow "was even beginning to wonder if perhaps I had overstated my
case"–until someone sent him a copy of the Dilbert illustrated handbook put out for
Xerox employees.

Xerox management has recognized what more gullible Dilbert
readers do not: Dilbert is an offbeat sugary substance that helps the corporate medicine
go down. The Dilbert phenomenon accepts and perversely eggs on many negative aspects of
corporate existence as unchangeable facets of human nature ("immutable"). As
Xerox managers grasped, Dilbert speaks to some very real work experiences while
simultaneously eroding inclinations to fight for better working conditions.

"What’s important here," Tom Tomorrow notes,
"is that the purveyors of corporate gibberish at Xerox were not threatened by
Dilbert. Nor did they feel that the inclusion of a cartoon in which Dilbert warns a new
employee to run for her life from the company’s new empowerment program in any way
undermined their own empowerment program."

Rather than presenting a hazard to corporate authority,
Dilbert provided Xerox with help in deflecting cynicism that everyone knows exists, while
supplying a kind of targeted celebrity-endorsement for Xerox managers. Dilbert’s
make-believe office became a pedantic anti-model "the antithesis of
empowerment," the Xerox handbook explains. "Dilbert’s here to get your
attention. So far, it seems to be working. He’s here to remind us of the behaviors and
attitudes we want to avoid, and change."

Yet Dilbert’s imprimatur on Xerox inverts any shred of
subversion that readers in cubicles might have imagined. Instead of being a weapon against
mind-numbing corporate blather, Dilbert is a tool for propagating more of it.

Not content to draft Dilbert characters directly into its
in-house propaganda army, Xerox also opted to sprinkle Scott Adams-style prose throughout
the text. (Example: "Xerox’s model of the Empowering Work Environment is a conceptual
model. Because it’s printed on paper, technically, you could fold it up and make a paper
airplane out of it, but that wouldn’t make it an airplane model. Besides, we’d prefer you
didn’t do that.") Every page or so, some effort at whimsical wit appears, as if to
say a manager is just one of the guys.

Bottom line: Serving Xerox can be fun and meaningful.
Seventeen pages into the handbook there’s a drawing of Dogbert flat on his back,
exclaiming: "Ahhh … The Aimless Empowered!"

The Xerox-Dilbert liaison was hardly out of character for
either party. In Tom Tomorrow’s words, "it’s just a minor artifact from a
merchandising empire gone mad. But that’s not an excuse. It’s one thing to be selling
everything from Dilbert Mouse Pads to Post-It Notes to any piece of crap with a flat
surface large enough to hold a legible Dilbert logo. But there’s something inherently
dissonant in using Dilbert images to illustrate exactly the sort of corporate babble Scott
Adams’s entire career is predicated on deconstructing."

"What’s next?" Tomorrow asks. "Zany Dilbert
termination notices, so downsized employees can enjoy a heartfelt chuckle over the
hopelessness of their plight as they’re being shown the door?"

The flood of Dilbert products can be understood as a
vaccine. A mild strain of irreverence–touted as full-blown rebellion–inoculates against
the authentic malady of anti-corporate fervor.

Parallel to the fictional content of Dilbert is the
real-life conduct of its creator. Like Michael Jordan endorsing Nike footwear and
insisting that the workers making the shoes in sweatshops overseas are irrelevant to him,
Scott Adams hasn’t hesitated to align himself with immense corporations if they’re willing
to move large sums of money in his direction. Let’s consider one of those firms–Intel,
the world’s biggest maker of computer chips.

While Dilbert seemed to ally itself with embattled workers,
Intel’s execs comprehended the shallowness of that alliance. For Intel, an arrangement
with Adams was a compelling way to buff up its image.

As it happened, at the same time that Adams was endorsing
Intel’s Video Phone wares, the firm was blocking employees’ on-the-job access to a web
site put together by some dissatisfied Intel workers. The company programmed its workplace
computers so that if employees tried to look at the web site, the effort would be
fruitless–eliciting signals like "abort" or "fail."

Intel’s management enforced the cyber-blockade without
apology. After all, it abhorred the material on the website (wwwigc.apc.org/faceintel)
maintained by a group of current and former employees called "FACE Intel." A
company spokesperson told the Portland-based Willamette Week newspaper: "In
our view it’s defamatory. We have a right to control how our computer system is used, and
we chose not to use it for this small group of people."

This, of course, is the kind of management arrogance that
Adams might lampoon in Dilbert. But the contradictions go much deeper. As the blockaded
web site spells out in grim detail, Intel is in the midst of making war on its work force
with managers ordered to continue a downsizing process by implementing "termination
quotas." The increased pressures on Intel employees have caused extreme and
protracted stress for many. The FACE Intel group says it wants to inform the public
"about how far Intel goes in the quest of higher profits and productivity, without
regard to human needs or capabilities."

White posting profits of $5.2 billion in 1996, Intel
persisted with its push to eliminate jobs. "Managers are forced to target the most
vulnerable from those that are left," FACE Intel explains. "These competent,
contributing individuals are unfortunately targeted for termination. Managers justify this
corruption by attempting to build a case of inadequacy against the targeted employee.
These cases are unfounded and unreasonable. Some of those targeted are employees who are
too `expensive,’ compared to the replacement employee, a new college graduate."

At age 53, former Intel engineer Ken Hamidi ruefully
remembered how he sometimes put in workdays that lasted 18 or 20 hours. "They have
you working 150 percent of capacity," he said. In the long run, many suffer: "A
lot of people are seeing psychologists, having nervous breakdowns, heart attacks,
suicides. It’s the number one company in the world, but it’s a miserable place to
work." According to the sample survey done by FACE Intel, "over 90 percent of
the employees targeted for termination are over the age of 40."

Perhaps it’s no accident that Scott Adams displays special
contempt for people who have been around for several decades. In The Dilbert Future,
old people are targets of particular derision. Adams sees scant value in the elderly; as
producers they’re close to worthless and as consumers they’re basically in the way, moving
slowly and holding up progress in checkout lines. He writes that "the only thing
worse than being surrounded by induhviduals is being surrounded by senior citizen
induhviduals."

On May 22, 1996–a year before Dilbert became another
marketing accessory for Intel Corp.–the company’s chief operating officer, Craig Barrett,
told the Intel stockholders meeting: "The half-life of an engineer … is only a few
years."

Dilbert humor is sublimely safe for Intel, and Xerox ($26
billion in assets), and the other conglomerates embracing it, precisely because the
Dilbert boundaries are so reliable. The running gags stay inside the moat of the corporate
castle. Scott Adams is an impish yet loyal subject, a court jester who has proven his
eagerness to serve the royal highness in a land where cash is king.

The contrast with the creator of Calvin and Hobbes is
striking. Bill Watterson rebuffed all attempts to create spin-off products featuring the
little boy Calvin and his come-alive stuffed tiger. In plush suites where multimillion
dollar tie-ins are automatic, Watterson’s stubborn sense of integrity was exceptional.

Zeal to squeeze every drop of commerce out of Dilbert is
consistent with the temper of Adams’s cartoons and books: The corporate contest is the
only game worth playing, and the glorious option is for the few winners to run up the
dollar score as high as they can. The many losers try to cope as best they can.

All this is in sync with the mass media scenery and hardly
seems conspicuous. On the contrary, the ideology that enthralls Adams blends with the
dominant messages from mass media every day–so ubiquitous that they’re taken for granted
as part of the natural terrain.

Institutional labyrinths keep promoting "a view of the
world which controls perceptions of what is, and limits the possibilities of what might
be," wrote political scientist Paul N. Goldstene. We continuously meet power
"concentrated and screened from perception which it increasingly constructs"; we
are moving to "a condition where the effects of power are pervasive, but where its
identity is lost."

So Dilbert, like much other mass-marketed culture, adds to
the despair that it evokes. The result is not so much laughter as sighs of recognition and
further resignation. Dilbert is among a wide range of products acclaimed for their high
jumps over low standards.

Like news media, mass-culture products routinely guide
Americans away from awareness of how, and for what purposes, they’re shaped by corporate
forces so widespread as to be almost anonymous. We are guaranteed to have plenty of
company in a disorienting–and numbing–process.

While language, art, dialogue, and debate are valuable
tools for digging out of messy quandaries, words have been looted of meaning. After the
thousands of times we’ve heard the word "freedom" used in political speeches and
TV commercials, for instance, how readily can we invoke or feel its meaning? The
Xerox-Dilbert employee handbook, by the way, promises that workers will gain
"freedom" by following its cues.

A never-ending din of white noise equates the mouthing of a
word with what it’s supposed to represent. The image associated with a timeworn word
commonly precedes, and preempts, thought. As Stuart Chase noted a half-century ago,
"Identification of word with thing is well illustrated in the child’s remark `Pigs
are rightly named, since they are such dirty animals."’ Words supplant meaning, with
verbiage its surrogate and cliches its frequent enemy. Thus are the arsenals of confusion
stockpiled and fired, laying siege to our own futures–until, as Jimi Hendrix anticipated,
"the life that led us is dead."

All we ever have is daily life. When so much of it is taken
up with doing things we don’t particularly want to do, going through motions of being who
we don’t particularly want to be, our lives are slipping away. As one uneasy hectic day
follows another, many workers yearn for a substantive remedy. Dilbert is a cynical
placebo.

Praise for Adams reached a fever pitch with The Dilbert
Principle’s
zooming sales in 1996. Newsweek proclaimed that "the contrast
between Dilbert and real life is…almost nonexistent." Time asserted: "Every
calamity has its bard, and downsizing’s is Scott Adams." Business Week dubbed
the top-selling book "part comic collection, part management-book parody, and all
antiboss."

Dilbert may be "antiboss." But so is
Blondie.

For decades, Dagwood’s perennial enemy was Mr. Dithers, a
boss with techniques of oppression ranging from the guilt trip and the blatant threat to
out-and-out physical assault. But to read Blondie--or Dilbert–is hardly to partake
of an anti-corporate polemic. Among their many functions, middle managers serve as
flak-catchers in lieu of those with appreciably more power in the organization.

To vilify Mr. Dithers–or the fellow with the devilish pair
of tufts on his head who afflicts Dilbert, Wally, and Alice–is to engage in a timeless
shriek. Yes, Scott Adams’s humor is more "sophisticated"–it’s layered with
countless references to maddening technobabble and fatuous management cant–but it remains
in a pandering groove. Let’s take Adams at his word: "Like any good business, I
modified my product to make it more acceptable."

Dilbert has no major quarrel with the biggest bosses of
all. While no doubt many Microsoft employees tack Dilbert strips to their bulletin boards,
why would Bill Gates mind? Dilbert is no more likely to inspire an insurrection against
his awesome power than the president’s next State of the Union address.

In The Dilbert Future, Scott Adams writes with
admiration, even reverence, about Gates. ("How smart is he really? Smart enough not
to let you know how smart he is When a cartoon has Dogbert saying that he’s writing an
article to "explain why I’m smarter than the entire Microsoft Corporation,"
Dilbert bristles and retorts: "Actually, they’re mostly geniuses. And many are
millionaires." That’s about as close as Dilbert ever gets to unabashed idealism.

"It’s difficult to think of a company in the history
of the world that’s positioned to influence so many aspects of life as Microsoft is at the
end of the 20th century," Silicon Valley investor Michael Moritz commented in late
1996. "In terms of a civilized world, you’d have to go back to the Roman Empire to
find any organization that had as great a reach as Microsoft has today."

Dilbert’s criticism of the Corporate Church is so diluted
that it’s now sprinkled like holy water as a Church ritual.

Implicit in many of the Dilbert comics, and in the writings
of Scott Adams, is the assumption that efficiency should reign supreme. Efficiency
Almighty. Bypassing this kingdom of goodness is idiotic–but more importantly, it is
blasphemous.

To hear Adams spin his endless rant, the great sin of
bureaucracies–and the "idiots" within them–is chronic inefficiency. Failure to
come anywhere near the lofty ideal is frequent grist for the Dilbert mill. The
credo of a worthy office worker–I am efficient, therefore I am–cannot be stated with
honesty by anyone in Dilbertland.

It may seem surprising or counterintuitive, but in the
corporate jihad of the mid-t990s, Dilbert became a stealth weapon against workers. After
all, bosses cracking whips commonly have about as much credibility as a slave master
threatening galley slaves. But a clever satire of inefficiency can go where no
whip-cracking is able to penetrate.

Top-echelon corporate managers have good reason to smile on
a popular cartoon that hammers away at some of their favorite messages aimed at workers:
Inefficiency is really idiotic. Don’t you yearn for efficiency? Isn’t the lack of it the
root of our problems here?

A lot of what’s in mass media doesn’t seem to have anything
to do with our daily routines. But Dilbert affirms some firsthand experiences. The comic
strip–fanciful yet weirdly realistic–seems to be "on our side" against the
petty gauntlets of nonsense in the workplace.

Most people have very little control over their job.
Employees are afraid to be open about perceptions that might not sit well with
supervisors. At work we’re supposed to strive to be smart–but not too smart. In fact,
taking a mental dive often seems wise. A motto might be: Dummy up for safety.

Dilbert satirizes and reinforces the dumbness of the
workplace. The comic says that middle-management emperors have no clothes–but the Dilbert
material is part of the pop-culture fabric shielding the empire from scrutiny.

Many managers are happy to get on a Dilbert bandwagon that
isn’t going much of anywhere. Dilbert tells a daily cautionary tale that most bosses can
acknowledge some truth in: Many workplaces are stifling. Alienated employees are less
happy and, in the long run, less productive. Etc. And bottlenecked communication impedes
feedback for creative solutions.

While workers are often frustrated and angry, it’s
hazardous to express such emotions directly. And yet the frustration and anger are clear
realities. As the management of Xerox came to see, Dilbert can help to define very real
problems in narrow terms.

Technical expertise is on a pedestal–great precision is
sought in dealing with computers, for instance–but fuzziness customarily prevails with
reference to power. Whatever is understood privately, little is discussed openly about
dynamics of leverage and manipulation. Dilbert cuts only at the margins, dissecting
management’s techniques