#333 from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 4          April 1998

Want More Productivity? Move Out Of Dilbertís World
by Carolyn Deasy Pizzuto

Ms. Pizzuto is founder and managing director of CDA Management Consulting, Inc. (Middleburg Heights, OH; phone 440-891-9166), an organization specializing in productivity gains through creative workplace changes.  She writes and speaks nationally on the topics of leadership, teamwork, change, and shared values.  

Truth be known, I hate Dilbert cartoons.  That statement puts me in an unpopular position with managers who attend seminars I facilitate.  I hate the spirit of Dilbert for the same reasons that they like it.  Generally they like Dilbert because it satirizes everything that they see as ridiculous in an organization.  The managers have no problem telling one anecdote after another about faulty systems, inefficient production facilities, obvious competition between sales and service, and the unnecessary reports and paperwork.  Ah, the paperwork that no one reads!  The managers see ďupper managementĒ as the problem.  They say that the executive level is not ďin touch.Ē

I agree with their interpretation of Dilbert.  And thatís exactly my point.  Show me a company where thereís a Dilbert cartoon posted on a wall or door, and Iíll show you a company where no level of management is immune from the criticism of its staff.  Itís not just upper management who is under scrutiny.  The spirit of Dilbert thrives in an environment where people take actions regardless of practicality, thought, economics, or popular support.  Fundamentally, it implies that the employees know more than management.

So what is the opposite of a ďDilbertĒ environment?  The opposite is obvious.  The opposite is an organization in which employees respect management and credit them with some real smarts.  Itís an organization in which employees usually want to go along with the game plan.  In fact in some organizations, employees suggest game plans.  Bottom line, itís an organization in which people feel useful, productive, and appreciated. 

I hate to use a corporate-type term, but we are talking about a culture.  Itís not the managementís attitude.  It is not laborís attitude.  Itís a prevailing environment thatís motivating.  How does a manager create that environment in his/her area of influence?  There are two basic principles to follow. 

Choice and Control

All employees thrive on two basic human freedoms:  1) having choice and 2) having control.  Think of the last time you wanted to make a decision, but it was made for you.  I know a manager who recently planned to turn down an exciting reassignment.  As it turned out, the company changed the plan; the manager was dismayed.  When I pointed out that she planned to decline the offer, she said that she still liked to think it was her choice. 

Similarly, most employees know many wasteful efforts in their organizations.  They often donít suggest fixing them because they think they have no choice but to follow the procedure.  Worse yet, many employees donít think their manager has any real control over the system.

We can have real gains in productivity if we unleash some of the unnecessary controls.  For example, at a recent company meeting, after the agenda was covered, an employee suggested that the company stop talking about fixing things and start fixing things, such as their poor physical inventory process.  Two important lessons were learned.  First, provide a forum for employees to uncover issues. Usually a suggestion box doesnít work.  Try to find an interactive way through meetings, e-mails, or lunch brown-bag sessions.  Second, appreciate the level of knowledge.  The employee had long enough tenure that, in ten quite-entertaining minutes, he regaled the attendees with how the company had repeated the same mistakes for years and, roughly three times a year, had to fix them. He suggested they fix it the first time. 

Sometimes employees speak from a less informed perspective.  When this happens, itís important not to dismiss the person, therefore dismiss the concept.  Discuss what would be improved, accomplished, or reduced if the concept were pursued.  Often managers find these uninformed opinions a valuable source for great ideas, although the final outcome may not be the original suggestion.

Choice and control can be exercised even in the most serious conditions.  A client had a very sudden downturn in business when a key customer declared bankruptcy.  They had no choice but to reduce staff.  Due to other new work, the reduction  was expected to last two to three months.  I inquired as to whether the employer had any interest in easing the pain.  Somewhat surprised that this was possible, they pursued the topic.  The timing was great:  May.  The workforce was primarily female.  I suggested asking employees to pick their two preferred options out of three choices.  The first choice was a reduced work week.  The second was a personal leave of absence.  The third was to accept reduction in force.  Many mothers loved the idea of being home with children for the summer, while preserving their tenure with the company.  Plus they didnít have to look for another job.  Others felt they needed income and opted for the reduced work week or the reduction.  The point is that this wasnít a good situation, but it was handled the best way possible.

So how do you know if youíre a control freak or if you give enough choice and control to your staff?  First thing is to check out your organizationís culture.  Find out what the prevailing norms are. Take steps to consciously think of ways of turning a decision, problem, or mandate into a request, opportunity or choice. Itís not easy; it means challenging your own thinking.  It means changing how you talk to people.  It means answering a question with a question.  We all know how annoying that habit can be. 

Things can change if you want them to change; otherwise look out!  Some day Dilbertís name may be lined out and some maverick has penned in your name instead!

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                        Manager Audit

Do you regularly say: ďIíd like your opinion on....?Ē

Do you issue things in writing addressed to individuals rather than ďall staff?Ē  

Do you ask for advice from your staff?

Do you prevent signs (usually paper, ripped, and messy) announcing the ďdonítsĒ, such as donít leave the door open; donít forget to punch out; donít use the visitorís parking area?

Have you been complimented by any member of your staff at least three times in the last quarter?

Have you been complimented by your boss on something a member of your work group did?

Did you pass on the compliment?

Do you worry that staff members might think of you as a fool?

Do you find the more you help, the more people consult you on new issues?

Did you take all your vacation?

Do you have to go to another department to see Dilbert cartoons?

If you answered ďyes,Ē then you are letting go of your need to control.

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