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Explaining Corporate Culture Through "The Office" 224

Posted by kdawson
from the rising-to-the-level-of-their-convenience dept.
Writing in the ribbonfarm.com blog, Venkatesh Rao uses The Office to explain and illustrate a theory of management he calls the Gervais Principle (after the TV series's creator). Taking off from Hugh MacLeod's cartoon laying out a corporate hierarchy in layers of Sociopaths, the Clueless, and Losers, Rao riffs on and updates the Peter Principle, in these terms: "Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into [clueless] middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves." Don't know about you, but this analysis suddenly makes sense of much that mystified me in my sojourn in corporate America.
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Explaining Corporate Culture Through "The Office"

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  • by symbolset (646467) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:37AM (#29741619) Journal

    That makes better sense for slashdotters.

    /I believe you have my stapler.

  • Yes men (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:41AM (#29741637) Homepage Journal

    Where I work a sure fire way to get promoted is to do exactly what your boss says, no matter how stupid or badly thought out. The boss is alwaye right.

    The result is that middle management is crammed with hyper reactive former engineers who jump from task to task on a seconds notice and literally cringe when the phone rings.

    The final result is that out product line is a mess of modules built with incompatible tool chains, and our actual code is a mess of short term hacks.

    Fuck.

    • Re:Yes men (Score:5, Interesting)

      by cjfs (1253208) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:49AM (#29741659) Homepage Journal

      Chin up, your situation can't be all that bad. I noticed you referred to "boss" in the singular. It only gets rough when multiple bosses say conflicting things that all must be correct. Then you have to start redefining words.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        Chin up, your situation can't be all that bad. I noticed you referred to "boss" in the singular. It only gets rough when multiple bosses say conflicting things that all must be correct. Then you have to start redefining words.

        Don't get me started on matrix management across different countries with nationalistic paranoia thrown into the mix....

        • by daem0n1x (748565)
          I guess we're co-workers.
          • Me too.

            When I get conflicting directions from multiple bosses, I find it easier to just do nothing. Oftentimes in these situations I'll later get direction that, "We changed our minds. Stop doing what I told you to do, because we're going in a different direction." Yes boss. :-)

      • "multiple bosses" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:04AM (#29741715)
        Clearly you have never worked in an environment when one boss has several personalities, they change several times a day, and each one contradicts what the last one just said. And it's no good getting things in writing because the claim will then be that you've "misinterpreted" it, as in "when I said black you should have realised I meant white."

        It took me two years to realise that this was a deliberate boss strategy by a clueless middle manager who was overpromoted, and was using it to freak out his underlings. More usually the multi-personality boss has only two personalities, the before lunch and the after lunch, resulting from a lunchtime session with his or her personal psychoanalyst (Dr. Jack Daniels).

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by cjfs (1253208)

          Clearly you have never worked in an environment when one boss has several personalities, they change several times a day, and each one contradicts what the last one just said.

          Now that you mention it, I have had a few bosses that looked awfully similar...

          • My last boss was a real pisser

            - He'd direct me to do something, like look-up old schematics on the system, and then I'd ask him to show me the first schematic so I'd know how to use the POS software, and he'd respond, "Figure it out yourself."

            - Then after lunch he'd come back and say, "Why isn't it done yet?!?!?" Um well probably because I haven't guessed the mysterious line-driven commands yet, because you failed to show them to me, or even give me a list. Duh.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by jimicus (737525)

          It took me two years to realise that this was a deliberate boss strategy by a clueless middle manager who was overpromoted, and was using it to freak out his underlings.

          BTDTGTTS. Though (in my case at least) the boss in question didn't seem to realise he was doing it.

          Having said that, he was known throughout the organisation as being "difficult to work with" (in much the same way as bubonic plague is "a slight case of the sniffles") and when he resigned (having been headhunted in a profession where headhunting simply does not happen) giving significantly less than his contractual notice, not a word was said.

        • by rtb61 (674572) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:42AM (#29742173) Homepage

          Well, no, you have met the sociopath. They spend all day, seriously, all day plotting and scheming how to get ahead or how to entrench themselves in their current position. The plotting and scheming includes the two most important skills of the sociopath, how to blame others for the mistakes the sociopath makes and how to take the credit for the good work down by others, often simultaneously ie. they bugger up come to you for solution and before you know it, you made the mistake and the solution becomes theirs.

          The multiple personalties are nothing more than masks and they will create and use as many as they need to further their schemes, The most difficult part is surprise, surprise, they get into their position via nepotism, best solution, leave, you might as well if you are any good you will be targeted for termination as they will recognise you as a threat, unless of course you are a willing accomplice in their inevitable criminal schemes to rip of customers, other staff and of course investors, in that case watch out, they will have a plan in place to ensure you take the fall while they take the money.

          Now you might think sociopaths are smart, that is not really true, what you have to realise is, they really do spend all day every day, day in and day out, plotting and scheming, ingratiating those who will benefit them and back stabbing threats. They really do derive very little pleasure from life it is a part of their mental disease and ties in with they, from their own point of view, being the only person in existence, everyone else is an artefact, a piece of furniture, a chair to be sat on or thrown against the wall.

          • by postbigbang (761081) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @08:21AM (#29743581)

            Sociopathy may look like a 'disease' but it's really a condition, and it's not 'curable'. Only the behavior can be modified, often with conditional behavioral therapy/CBT. But the sociopath usually doesn't see the errors and is unmotivated to want to modify their behavior.

            These individuals are, IMHO, a separate and distinct species as while they may have homo sapiens bodies, their minds do not think like the vast majority.

            I have autistic relatives, and the same can be said of them.

            Add a sociopath to management, and you're screwed, generally. It usually ends badly for them, thus intensifying their resolve, too. Best of luck to those working 'under' the PHBs.

          • by ArhcAngel (247594)

            I worked with an electrical engineer like that. Every engineering tech that ever worked for him ended up getting reprimanded for the projects shortcomings. Fortunately another engineer there taught me how to use bcc: in ALL communication with him so when the project I was on went to hell upper management already knew who to blame. Of course that doesn't work as well when your boss is the nephew or some such of an executive. I did end up getting reprimanded for something else. I had a grin ear to ear as my b

          • by infinite9 (319274) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @12:23PM (#29746931)

            I have you all beat. I once worked in an office where 3/4 of the people were scientologists.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care.

        Bob Porter: Don't... don't care?

        Peter Gibbons: It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation? And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.

        Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?

        Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.

        Bob Slydell: Eight?

        Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I ha

      • by elrous0 (869638) *
        Oh God, I just had a post-traumatic flashback to a time when I had two female bosses--both of whom were micro-mangers, changed their minds on any whim, had selective memory, disagreed with one another regularly, were completely ignorant of the technical aspects of my job, and were passive-aggressive to a degree that would have been comical in any other context. Imagine have Kate from "Jon and Kate Plus 8" as your boss, now imagine having *two* Kates who hated each other as your bosses. If I had to go throug
        • Imagine having Kate from "Jon and Kate Plus 8" as your boss.

          I now have a deeper understanding of why, every once in a while, you hear about some guy that just iced everyone in his office including himself with a automatic weapon.

    • by feepness (543479)

      The result is that middle management is crammed with hyper reactive former engineers who jump from task to task on a seconds notice and literally cringe when the phone rings.

      Wow! My work is the same way! How do you think we should fix it?!

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Cheer up. It could be worse!

      For example your name could have been Michael Bolton, and/or one of your co-workers might make a "jump to conclusions" board game after he botches his suicide.

      And don't get me started on the TPS reports.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jandersen (462034)

      Firstly: I think this model, with 'sociopaths' on top and derogatory names all around, is a load of nonsense, really. A sociopath is what used to be called a psychopath in the not so old days; but since it turned out that the general public, helped by the entertainment industry, completely misunderstood what it was all about, the term 'sociopath' was coined instead. Now, of course, people use the term to try to sound as if they have a clue, which, alas, they still haven't - the author of the OP included.

      So

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        You, sir, are either clueless or an authoritarian manipulator yourself. Your definitions are erroneous and not a little bit pompously wrong. A sociopath is not the same as a psychopath. A sociopath is aware of connsequences that affect him, though he may be guiltless and conscienceless in regard to effects of his actions on others. A psychopath on the other hand often does not care about effects on him, he will carry out destructive actions without bothering to worry about the future.

        In my career I've run

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by jandersen (462034)

          You, sir, are either clueless or an authoritarian manipulator yourself.

          May I suggest that you go and read some of the works of Dr Hare and Dr Hervey M. Cleckley; they contain a number of case studies that will show you what the typical psychopath is like. My 'definitions' are merely summaries of these descriptions.

      • Re:Yes men (Score:5, Informative)

        by DangerFace (1315417) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:15AM (#29742307) Journal

        From the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, the premier psychological dictionary of Britain:

        sociopathy n. Another name for antisocial personality disorder. sociopath n. A person with sociopathy.

        And here's the definiton of antisocial personality disorder:

        antisocial personality disorder n. A personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or early adolescence and continuing into adulthood, with such signs and symptoms as failure to conform to social norms, manifested by repeated unlawful behaviour; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying or swindling [confidence trickery] for pleasure or personal gain; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness involving frequent assaults or fights; reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibilty involving failure to hold down jobs or to honour financial obligations; and lack of remorse for the mistreatment of others, as indicated by indifference or rationalization.

        Please note that not all of these indicators need necessarily be present for a diagnosis of sociopathy, but my apologies, I don't have a copy of the DSMIV with me right now. In any case, jandersen is talking out of his arse, and has apparently made up a definition of sociopathy by watching some TV shows.

        ... but that is only a layman's opinion.

        Yes, jandersen, it is a layman's opinion. Perhaps you have heard the saying "'tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt"?

        • Re:Yes men (Score:4, Informative)

          by Nidi62 (1525137) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @07:18AM (#29743087)
          DSM-IV: Diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder requires 3 or more of the following(after age 15): 1. failure to conform to social norms with respect towards lawful behaviors 2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeat lying or conning others for personal pleasure/profit 3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead 4. irritability or aggressiveness 5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others 6. constant irresponsibility(failure to honor financial obligations) 7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Scrameustache (459504)

          From the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, the premier psychological dictionary of Britain:

          sociopathy n. Another name for antisocial personality disorder. sociopath n. A person with sociopathy.

          And here's the definiton of antisocial personality disorder:

          antisocial personality disorder n. A personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or early adolescence and continuing into adulthood, with such signs and symptoms as failure to conform to social norms, manifested by repeated unlawful behaviour; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying or swindling [confidence trickery] for pleasure or personal gain; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness involving frequent assaults or fights; reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibilty involving failure to hold down jobs or to honour financial obligations; and lack of remorse for the mistreatment of others, as indicated by indifference or rationalization.

          Please note that not all of these indicators need necessarily be present for a diagnosis of sociopathy, but my apologies, I don't have a copy of the DSMIV with me right now.

          If only you had acces to the internet, and therefore wikipedia [wikipedia.org]...

          Diagnostic criteria (DSM-IV-TR)

          A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and the rights of others occurring since the age of 15, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:[1]

          1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;

    • by DiamondGeezer (872237) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:51AM (#29741907) Homepage
      ...and become a manager. It's hard work with lots of moving parts that need to keep spinning and lots of things that need to be done by this or that timeline. My team members respect me and do as I ask because I'm not full of shit.

      But when I reflect on managers that I've had, a significant number have been seriously mentally ill. I refused to work for one recently when I realised he was paranoid schizophrenic (and I know what I'm talking about on that one).

      Those managers appear to have been chosen because of their mental illness which makes them unable to empathize with their underlings and spend most of their time in controlfreakery or worse to keep the people below off balance and never know whats going on.

      Not too many sociopaths but plenty of managers with schizophrenic spectrum type disorders.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by gwappo (612511)

        My team members respect me and do as I ask because I'm not full of shit.

        Work up your courage and do an anonymous 360; you'll be surprised. I'm assuming the team you're managing is of a meaningful size (eg. 15-20) the diversity of comments you get back is amazing and educational. People tend to have diverse needs from their superiors but face to face you usually get mostly smiley faces.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by DiamondGeezer (872237)
          Nope, of this I'm sure. I've only been doing this for a short while, but there's open communication in the team and questions and queries come up frequently, but none of it is hostile to me. Unless you're completely stupid, a team of engineers would let you know pretty quickly if they disrepect you.

          Probably because they've had a manager who was pretty bad, narcissistic and difficult, I come across as competent and workmanlike by comparison. You never really know for while whether you're cutting the musta
          • Not everywhere is like Dilbert, but everyone has known PHBs and know how destructive they can be. But I'm not one of them.

            I would definitely not suggest you're a PHB, you sound like a good team leader. It is however very rare for a group of people to all have the same opinion; which is exactly why a 360 is so damn interesting.

            • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

              by Hal_Porter (817932)

              I see what you mean, but there are a lot of people middle managers who are "good enough", usually compared to the likely alternatives. Most people know this and will even cover up their few mistakes.

              Basically it's a self interest thing. If you know your boss will get replaced by someone truly ghastly should they get fired you're going to stop that happening. My guess is the OP is in the "good enough" category from the way he writes about things. Of course he could be a deeply deluded sociopath who is unawar

          • by obarthelemy (160321) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @05:46AM (#29742695)

            The simple fact that you think that everyone loves you is proof that you are deluded. And that you say so emphatically on slashdot, narcissistic.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

              That, of course, is utter bullshit. If you are a good manager, and your team knows they can voice their disagreements without fear of being "silenced", you will have a team that universally respects you. You have to actually be a good manager that actually listens to the oposing viewpoints before making a decision, but universal respect is certainly within reach of any manager.

              I came in to my current position as a manager like this was leaving. In fact he was being promoted by force - they were trying to

      • I turned my back on a good team leader position a year ago because I had been put under a manager who had something seriously wrong with him. Hard to say what. He could just be a good actor. But I don't want to work for somebody who can live with pissing people off the way he was, so I found a different position in the company.

        This persons defining attribute was that he gave orders from the first hour he was there but clearly know nothing about the area he was managing. Most people learn their limitations i

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        I realised he was paranoid schizophrenic (and I know what I'm talking about on that one).

        Symptoms [mayoclinic.com]
        By Mayo Clinic staff

        There are several types of schizophrenia, so signs and symptoms vary. In general, schizophrenia symptoms include:

        Beliefs not based on reality (delusions), such as the belief that there's a conspiracy against you
        Seeing or hearing things that don't exist (hallucinations), especially voices
        Incoherent speech
        Neglect of personal hygiene
        Lack of emotions
        Emotions inappropriate to the situation
        Angry

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I guess this means the bankers weren't the only ones responsible for the economic meltdown. However, I think the ability to insure against losses was the #1 reason for the meltdown; if I could insura against gambling losses I'd be hitting the riverboat every week.

      Incompetence at all levels and in all industries, it seems. Incompetent engineers ("middle management is crammed with hyper reactive former engineers who jump from task to task on a seconds notice and literally cringe when the phone rings"), incomp

    • Hah. Where I work, you only need outlive everyone else to get promoted.

      The Office? I've never watched an entire episode. All that I was ever able to see are some egotistical brain dead and possibly gay fools posing for a camera. What do they DO at that office? Nothing ever gets done, it seems. I miss the days of Mary Tyler Moore. It was easy to see that THEIR office was a NEWS office. They occasionally pretended to do news, in among all the silly humour. Having a plot makes it so much easier to follo

    • by GooberToo (74388)

      Sounds exactly like a job I had... except the jump from task to task happened at least a half dozen times per day... and then I got dinged in review for not staying on task by the very same boss. Then when I informed the boss the reason I was not staying on task, he was shocked and horrified. The constant interruptions then dropped from a half dozen per day to two to three times per day where the new tasks took longer to perform; usually 1/2 - half the day and at his side, helping him with his own, self agg

  • by feepness (543479) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:55AM (#29741683) Homepage
    Any bureaucracy. Government as well.

    Sadly, all are lofty goals eventually come down to a sociopathic bureaucrat acting solely to benefit himself.
  • Another View (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hyades1 (1149581) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:58AM (#29741697)

    Perhaps I'm oversimplifying, but I've always had a slightly different view of corporate culture...especially at the very top. I is easily summed up thus: Whether the water is salty or fresh, shit floats to the top.

    • by cjfs (1253208)

      Those who can, do. Those who can't, manage?

      Reminds me of some type of engineer to politician spectrum, with everyone viewing their position as the pinnacle.

  • Balance of interests (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evilviper (135110) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:10AM (#29741749) Journal

    Sociopath's aren't necessarily a bad thing. They'll do whatever they have to for their benefit. If their benefit happens to benefit the company, SYNERGY! Symbiosis. Everyone's happy, capitalism works.

    It works out, because even if some leeches find a way to benefit from what is disadvantageous to the company, there's someone higher-up who more directly benefits from the success of the company, and will either push the leeches in the right direction, or throw them out. The system works.

    It only falls apart when the company is big enough that leeches go unnoticed higher up the chain.

    I must admit that the corporate world is slowly turning me into a sociopath as well. I have lots of things that need to get done, diplomacy takes forever, and the brutally honest (naive) approach gets you in trouble. So, whatever simple tricks will get things going, in the direction they need to go, are fair game.

    Yes, it takes a special balance of pathologies to make someone a manager, and when dealing with them, the only way to go is at least slightly dishonest manipulation. The standard forms of motivation that work with normal human beings just don't work with the collection of neuroses that coalesces into the form of a manager.

    • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:21AM (#29741801) Homepage Journal

      These days, the leeches at the very top have learned to set things up so that they don't have any interest in the company's success: if the company does well, they get huge bonuses, and if it does poorly, they get "fired" with equally huge golden parachutes. The whole synergy idea is beloved of management theorists (i.e. people who have a special talent for stringing buzzwords together) but it bears a steadily decreasing relationship to how things happen in the real world.

      • by houghi (78078)

        These days? You must be at least several hundred years old. Not looking at some exceptions, that is how it works at the top since at least the middle ages and most likely before that as well.

        The methods and legal terms have changed, but that is about it. Everybody looks after number one. The ones at the top just do it a bit better for various reasons. Whether you take your power and/or money by sword or by legal process is irrelevant if the result is the same.

        I am not going to work for the greater good of t

        • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:04AM (#29741955) Homepage Journal

          What I meant by "these days" is that for most of the 20th century, executives generally went down with the ship. Sure, the top executives of a failed company were still going to be much better off than the Joe Schmoes who worked for that company, but they were also going to be much worse off than the executives of successful companies. It's only in the last generation or so that the C*O class has learned to insulate itself almost completely from any consequences of failure. I agree with you that this is a return to form; executives are the new nobility, and it took them a while after the fall of the old nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries to figure out all the tricks.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by VoidCrow (836595)
            What can I say other than 'I agree'?
          • by Dunkirk (238653) *

            Yes. What strikes me most about this situation is that -- no matter how bad the fall -- the average corporate officer will find another company willing to take them on in another, privileged position. My ex-boss -- a "sociopath" if ever there was one -- knew this and even commented on it. It was his singular goal in life to make it into "the club," because, once you're in, you're in for life. If one company doesn't work out, you've got the "street cred" to just go somewhere else.

            Sadly, I think he was SO goo

          • by Mab_Mass (903149) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @10:17AM (#29745189) Homepage Journal

            As far as I can tell, the trick to rising to the top of the corporate ladder is to mainly to WANT to rise to the top and to be good at the skill of rising to the top.

            For example, at my job, I was hired as a lowly engineer, but by staying for a while, working hard, providing good input, etc. I eventually found myself in a strong managerial role. I was bad at it. I told the people above me when their project ideas were wrong. I reported bad news, and told them how long projects would take to do well.

            Since then, I've fallen back into a purely technical role, and I watch how my replacement has been handling things.

            As far as I can tell, his number one priority is not to make a good product - it is to report success to his supervisors. As long as things are done on paper, his bosses are happy, and he can pretend to be doing a great job. Meanwhile, he is thinking of this position largely as a way to put a few more years of management on his resume, so he can apply to a higher job. (This isn't just a guess - he told me this directly.)

            All of this makes me think that a lot of people move up the ladder just because that is their goal and they excel at that specific skill. Yes, there are competent people who are reluctantly promoted and who stick it out in the interest of having the organization do good work, but I'm thinking more and more that these folks are the oddities.

      • by hany (3601)

        Reality will kick in sooner or later. If later, it usually takes form of a "global depression", "global warming" or something similar.

        So I guess, the sooner it kicks in, the better. :)

    • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:34AM (#29741853) Journal
      I've been working in corporate environment, and the terminal stage for me is really perceived as the steady, apex-state for the organizations. I usually observe these developments:

      1. inward looking bias: the company is NEVER, at any stage, actively looking at its business in relation to objective realities. This gives a sense of control over its own destiny, akin to throwing the outboard motor into the sea because map reading is difficult.

      2. since reality intrudes sometimes, a well cohordinated system of committee sterilizes the possibility to learn from mistakes; a good committee, as you may know, is something that uses time and resources to say "We've done the best that could be done, and the failure was due to unforseeable circumstances; proceed as before";

      3. to avoid the possibility that the frontier parts of the organizations do an internal takeover, a good feudal system is essential. you must be able to dangle promotion to sinecures in front of those that have to face reality day by day;

      The promotion system is like a priesthood: the first requirement is an ability and willingness to believe. Ability gets only disbelief
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DeadDecoy (877617)
      I'm kinda curious though, how well does his theory apply to a small team of skilled workers, like say a programming team or surgical department? Or for that matter, professional individuals who work solo either in consulting or producing their own products? It seems to me, that the type of insanity Rao describes, applies predominantly to people who have low mobility in the social-economic environment skill-wise (minus the sociopaths). These people then, through a special type of Darwinism, become sociopaths
    • Unfortunately, it does not work all the time. For example, there are ways to improve corporate stock prices and yet doom the company in the long term. They are very well known (but not always available). But if such an avenue is available, it is usually much easier to follow than genuinely improving the value of the corporation. This is essentially what happened to the US auto-makers.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      I sometimes suspect that our society is tailored around the few percent of sociopaths it contains. 95% of people will not open you door even if you don't lock it. Yet everyone uses locks.
      A human organization can not be based on the goodwill and the assumption of total cooperation amongst its member because of a small minority. Because of this minority, the majority has to abide to stringent laws and regulations that are useless for 95% of the people.

      So yes, of course, a company works well with sociopaths
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Unless of course you care about the good of something that isn't yourself and isn't the company.

  • Sounds suspicious to me - more like the same "this can't be my fault, its [my parent|my spouse|society]'s fault" bullshit.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by linguizic (806996)
      I agree completely. It MUST be your fault my boss is Zap Brannigan in a Hawaiian shirt.
      • by Abstrackt (609015)

        I agree completely. It MUST be your fault my boss is Zap Brannigan in a Hawaiian shirt.

        That would make for some interesting team meetings...

        "All we have to do is aim for the bulls eye and the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate."

  • Right... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by muecksteiner (102093) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:37AM (#29741863)

    So what makes anyone think that this sort of behaviour is confined to the corporate world? Just consider academia. I mean, if there wasn't exactly the same kind of thing going on there, there would be no PhD Comics (a.k.a. "Dilbert for Academics"), right?

    A.

    • Re:Right... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by arethuza (737069) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:28AM (#29742089)
      I'd rather not consider academia, thank you very much. I'm amazed I managed to stick it for so long - I've never, even in rather ruthless commercial environments, encountered an area where everyone was so blatantly out for themselves and didn't give a sh*t about anyone else. All the horse trading over whether someone would help you only if they got their name on your paper etc. Towards the end of my time there I was even playing the game myself - asking (and getting) my name on papers that I contributed very little to. At least these days I occasionally do something that is actually of benefit to others, not something I think I ever achieved in academia. Yes, I know I'm quite bitter about it. Probably because I'm now appreciating how good their pension plan is.
      • Re:Right... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by muecksteiner (102093) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:43AM (#29742419)

        Actually, academia is experiencing the same kind of socio-dynamical problem that is plaguing the business world - only with slightly different constraints, and one aspect that actually makes it much worse (more on that further on). Common to both environments is that there appears to be a tendency inherent in the system to select exactly the wrong kind of persons for leading positions.

        In academia, you *do* have honest researchers who do not put their name on the publications of everyone else in the lab, regardless of whether they contributed to these. They are just at a significant disadvantage against paper-grabbers, and practically the only thing that can allow honest scientists to proceed along the career ladder are honest *senior* scientists, and professors. But once a particular university has become infected by paper-grabbers, it is very hard to get rid of them again - actually, they will tend to take over the system, once they have gained a foothold (a bit like academic kudzu, if you will).

        One defining feature of such individuals is that they do not have much of a scientific vision in their field, but they do know how to game the system. Which means that their only vulnerability is a lack of precisely the qualifications one would expect in an academic - a truly deep understanding of some area in their field of research. This is the reason that the one sort of person those paper-grabbing fast-track "scientists" abhor most within a department are actually precisely the persons who ought to be there - thorough, methodical workers who do *not* brag about their achievements all the time. These guys are the only ones who can actually say "look, the emperor has no clothes!", and as a consequence, are dangerous to them. So the career-minded paper grabber will often try everything he can to get rid of the genuine scientists around him.

        For these reasons, the two types of academic usually get on like cats and dogs, but usually, only one of them will advance along the career ladder - no karma points for guessing which of the two this is going to be. Fast forward after a couple of decades of such social dynamics taking place, and presto!, you end up with precisely the sort of universities we have now.

        And the peculiar personnel structure of universities means that these effects have a much worse effect on the overall organization than they have in the corporate world.

        In practically all cases, corporations have a dedicated career track for management, so there is at least a small chance that the lurid social dynamics of leadership promotion will only damage the ethos and effectivity of management. At least in theory, the actual productive part of a company can go on doing its thing, even if management are at each other's throats.

        In academia, you do not have a second career track for the weasels. Once academic kudzu has spread to the top of the hierarchy, there very often is nobody senior left to do actual high-level work that is genuinely useful - so all sorts of improper things start to happen as part of everyday routine. PhD Comics, here we come...

        • Re:Right... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by arethuza (737069) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @06:12AM (#29742753)
          One thing that cheers me up is that I wrote a single author paper once in my own time about a subject that was not directly related to my "day job". I got to present at a conference and it was selected for journal publication.

          You would not believe the amount of grief I got for doing this and the department effectively ignored this publication and I was told not to do that kind of thing again.

          The interesting thing is that looking back the contents of that paper were almost certainly patentable and could have (in a Eolas like manner) probably have been a way of screwing a lot of money out of Sun/Microsoft etc. Given that I don't approve of software patents I was rather glad it wasn't patented and, in my own bitter way, rather glad that they probably missed out on a pile of money.

  • by oever (233119) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:39AM (#29741871) Homepage

    A very similar theory was outlined in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. There, a planet was in apparent danger. The population was to be evacuated to a new planet in three ships. The first ship would contain the leaders, the third ship would contain the workers and artists. The second ship, the B ark containing amongst others hairdressers, tired T.V. producers, and insurance salesmen, personnel officers, was encountered by Arthur and Ford en route to a new planet.

    The B ark left first to make sure the population would be comfortably received on the new planet. The other two arks never followed.

    transcript [clivebanks.co.uk]

    • by VoidCrow (836595)
      I'd have kept the hairdressers,
    • by PitaBred (632671)
      Too bad everyone set for the A and C arks eventually died from a disease passed on telephone handsets ;) If only they hadn't sent off the telephone sanitizers to end up superseding the Golgafrinchans...
  • by azgard (461476) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:55AM (#29741915)

    Any hierarchical form of government has these problems. What we need is democracy, not more management buzzwords. The problem is that in hierarchy, people have power over each other, thus don't trust each other, and this inhibits free flow of information and makes all sorts of games possible.

    I recommend a good book http://www.amazon.com/Maverick-Success-Behind-Unusual-Workplace/dp/0446670553/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255506737&sr=8-1 [amazon.com] which explains this by nice example.

    • The SNAFU principle (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dido (9125) <dido@@@imperium...ph> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:34AM (#29742381)

      Exactly right. As the SNAFU principle states, true communication is possible only between equals. If someone has power over another in an organization, the subordinate would rather tell his/her superior pleasant lies rather than the truth, for fear of being shot as the messenger of bad news. There's a famous story that illustrates this quite well:

      In the beginning was the plan, and then the specification; And the plan was without form, and the specification was void.

      And darkness was on the faces of the implementors thereof; And they spake unto their leader, saying: "It is a crock of shit, and smells as of a sewer."

      And the leader took pity on them, and spoke to the project leader: "It is a crock of excrement, and none may abide the odor thereof."

      And the project leader spake unto his section head, saying: "It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide it."

      The section head then hurried to his department manager and informed him thus: "It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength."

      The department manager carried these words to his general manager, and spoke unto him saying: "It containeth that which aideth the growth of plants, and it is very strong."

      And so it was that the general manager rejoiced and delivered the good news unto the Vice President. "It promoteth growth, and it is very powerful."

      The Vice President rushed to the President's side, and joyously exclaimed: "This powerful new software product will promote the growth of the company!"

      And the President looked upon the product, and saw that it was very good.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:57AM (#29741927) Homepage Journal
    I'm going to invent a theory about soldiers and armies and stuff. I'll do it by watching "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan".
    • by Abcd1234 (188840)

      Yes, because art, particularly satire and comedy, can't possibly reveal real-world truths...

  • by dingen (958134) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:58AM (#29741931)
    Every time I read this sort of stuff, or watch The Office, or read Dilbert, I'm glad I've never worked for a company with over 20 employees.
  • Worth the coffee! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gwappo (612511) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:24AM (#29742067)
    Gave me some new insights, so I bought Venkatesh Rao a coffee (link at the bottom of the article.)

    Interesting how easy it is to classify (former) colleagues as sociopath, clueless or loser, yet how this gets harder to do on ourselves.

  • Ockham's razor (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dugeen (1224138)
    Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.
    • Re:Hanlon's razor (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:22AM (#29742337)

      "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity" -Hanlon's razor [wikipedia.org]

      "When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better." -Occam's razor [wikipedia.org]

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.

      That's not Ockham's razor, it's Hanlon's razor, and Hanlon's razor is entirely bogus in most cases. McGrew's razor says "never attribute to incompetence that which can be explained by greedy self-interest", and I think it applies here. Which razor makes more sense to you in this context?

      Occam's razor [wikipedia.org] roughly says "when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better."

  • who thinks "corporate culture" is an oxymoron?
  • by viking80 (697716) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @06:49AM (#29742931) Journal

    Series like the Office and books like the Peter Principle makes "the sour pill go down". By that I mean that it gives the average guy a safety vent for frustration and irritation created by random acts of management as well as corporate cruel and unusual operations. It basically lubricates the workforce, and while they think they are part of a large group ridiculing management and the corporate culture, the end effect of this effort is not change or revolution, but, au contraire, submission, acceptance and cooperation.

    • by Maltheus (248271) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @08:42AM (#29743829)

      Interesting in light of the fact that the only people that I actually see pin up Dilbert cartoons outside their cube are managers. I'd think, if white people can't use the N-word, then managers shouldn't be able to use Dilbert cartoons. But what you say rings true to me.

      I also think that's the reason the 1st amendment enjoys the strong protection that it does in America, while the rest of the constitution gets continually crapped on. The iron fisted Hitlers and Stalins of the world have short lived reigns. But if you can convince people they have a say in what happens to them (even if they have no influence), then they'll put up with almost anything.

      • The workers are too afraid for their jobs to pin up Dilbert. It would be seen as insubordination.

    • You may be right but there comes a time when even the best controls slip.

    • by pgn674 (995941)

      , and while they think they are part of a large group ridiculing management and the corporate culture, the end effect of this effort is not change or revolution, but, au contraire, submission, acceptance and cooperation.

      I don't think this article was written to try and induce change at all. I think the intent of the author was to explain the way things are, and I don't think he thinks he's part of a ridiculing group. It is true, though, that by explaining the way things are, he is probably helping lubricate the workforce, which may be a by-product and not an intent of his post.

  • Honestly, what good does labeling folks do? If you want to help matters, identify the behaviors that don't work, but name-calling, while perhaps cathartic to some, doesn't engender any sort of helpful solutions to the problems that management has with communication and leadership. Of course that's probably not the intent. The truth is that most problems in management are equally shared by subordinants (at ALL LEVELS of a hierarchy) because no one knows how to effectively communicate problems without fear of
  • by microTodd (240390) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @08:14AM (#29743515) Homepage Journal

    This is a really, really good blog post. Really made me think.

    To understand the essay, you have to separate yourself from the culture stigma of the word "loser" to grok that he is not talking about "living-in-your-parents-basement" losers, he is talking about a defined category of person who is in a position where they are being taken advantage of by the company, and know it. Basically, any worker in America.

    Here's where it gets interesting. Venkat talks about enlightened losers becoming slackers. I immediately thought of the anecdote about underperforming elementary school kids. Are they underperforming because they are not that bright? Or is it because they are not being challenged enough, are bored, and need to be promoted to the gifted class? This all ties back to the management lesson of challenging your people.

    Here is where Venkat, I think, makes one error. He bases the categorization of slacker losers upon the fact that they are not being paid well enough for their talent. But not all workers look at their paycheck as their only form of payment. Many people here on slashdot would perhaps be happy with a smaller paycheck if it was an awesome working environment where they could be challenged every day to do cool, neat things and write lots of code.

    In any case, great reading.

  • by e-scetic (1003976) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @10:29AM (#29745367)

    At the root of all of this bullshit is the selfish desire for more of something than anyone else has, to one-up, to compete, to p0wn, exploit, to have and wield power over others.

    I seriously think we need to rig society in such a way that selfishness is effectively disadvantaged. We can start with a money-free economy, that'll remove 95% of the sociopathy discussed here. People can go back to doing what they do for love of craft rather than love or need for money.

    Someone here mentioned that no matter what happens in the management levels, the bottom levels keep the company operating and moving forward. Perhaps we need to remove the management levels in order to improve efficiency. If a company can operate without managers, and I bet it can, then so can all levels of society and civilization.

  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @10:51AM (#29745701)

    To this day I'm convinced that the problem with corporate culture in the West is that people with business majors are running companies. The rationale seems to be if you majored in business, economics, etc that somehow you have a more intimate understanding of business and are better equipped to manage a business. The thing is how many people actually get into this field because they're passionate about it and how many do it simply because they believe it's the easiest way to land a job? I'd wager the vast majority of people are in the latter category. How many of these people chose a business major because there was nothing else they were interested in but felt they had to go to college to land an acceptable job? They probably should have taken a trade but that, apparently, is beneath most people nowadays.

    So you've got these passionless, ignorant (regarding the nature of the business where they work), drones who manage to climb up the corporate ladder by virtue of their degree. The people who actually have the skill and perform the work (engineers, programmers, designers, etc) have more of a tendency to get stuck because they're perceived as most valuable in the position they're currently occupying. And of course, it's human nature to protect yourself once you're in a position of authority. And interesting contrast to this are government workers who rarely have to worry about job security and for that reason could care less about the job they do.

    Needless to say, not everyone is equipped to manage. Everyone says they want to be a manager simply because of the prospect of earning more money but when it comes down to it they're not willing to deal with the stress and responsibilities the job demands. Although, larger companies seem to come up with all kinds of fluff titles in order to give their employees the illusion that they're progressing. But if there were more technical people in high level positions I believe we'd be seeing better American products, less outsourcing and more efficiency. It wouldn't solve everything, because we're still dealing with humans, but it would help.

    I think Asia is a good reflection of this. Engineers and designers routinely are the people running companies. Business majors end up in marketing, sales and accounting, where they belong. So you've got people with more intimate understanding of the nature of their company's business. However, managers in Asia can be brutal in a way Westerners can't imagine and in a way they couldn't even get away with here. They're extremely demanding and can be openly insulting towards their employees. They routinely resort to name-calling. I've had friends who have had papers thrown in their face because their manager was unhappy with something they had done. I've heard of people getting slapped, although that's very rare and nowadays people are more likely to take legal action. But this sort of thing happens everywhere, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. Although it's likely worse in places like China.

    Certainly, there's a level of elitism there. I have a friend who started his own company a few years ago and is tough on everyone who works with him. I have another friend who stopped working with him because she couldn't stand his tyrannical attitude. He's even rough with his own wife when it comes to work. But I've seen that level of demanding expectations from him even when it comes to service from a waiter in a restaurant or a hotel employee. Whatever problems he may have, I can't deny that he doesn't produce high quality work.

    Americans are pretty bad about having pride in anything. And I've noticed this tendency to blame someone else for their own problems in order to justify their own shortcomings. Experience crap service at a store and what is the excuse the employee will give? They don't earn enough to care or their manager is a jerk. That's not an excuse. But they've all got this entitlement mentality and don't value quality. And with employees like that why should a manager care about anything but t

  • things like The Office and Office Space are more documentaries than comedies to her.

    She's doomed to worked with a group of drama queens in her line of work.

I have never seen anything fill up a vacuum so fast and still suck. -- Rob Pike, on X.

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