Downtown Working

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October 20, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

How happy is your office? Go ask Catbert Walk through any office in America and chances are you'll find a few "Dilbert" comic strips tacked to cubicles, credenzas and calendars. Dilbert -- described on comic artist Scott Adams' homepage as a tech-head with "the social skills of a mouse-pad" -- has been around for almost 20 years and is as much a part of corporate culture as "re-engineering," "empowerment" and Myers-Briggs personality profiles.

If you are a manager of employees with a lot of Dilberts in your office -- beware! Those cartoons may be giving you a not-so-subtle message -- at least that's Rick Brenner's theory.

Brenner, owner of Chaco Canyons Consulting in Boston, Mass., suggests that managers who want to find out how effective they really are should place less value on traditional surveys and "360" assessments because they likely fall prey to the "Hawthorne Effect" -- i.e. employees modify their behavior and attitudes when they know they are being measured.

Instead, Brenner believes managers can better assess their effectiveness by looking at other factors, such as: number of posted Dilbert comics, percentage of posted Dilbert comics that involve Catbert the evil HR manager, percentage of posted Dilbert comics that involve the pointy-haired manager and percentage of desks with Dilbert calendars.

Of course, Brenner also recommends that managers look at voluntary turnover, project lateness and percentage of used sick days, but the message is clear: if your direct reports have offices full of Dilberts, they are definitely sending you a message, and it doesn't come with a smiley face.

And don't think managers are off the hook if the posted comics' content doesn't match their situation. "The content of Dilbert is not really that helpful [to managers]," says Brenner, "what is helpful is what people do with Dilbert. If there's a lot featuring the pointy-haired manager [the boss] on the walls, then its time for the organization to get some help."

Just how powerful is the Dilbert Effect? To find out, I sent an electronic survey about The Dilbert Effect to 30 people, 15 responded. Of those, only five said they read Dilbert on a regular basis. And five said they have a Dilbert comic or accessory displayed in their office.

What did they think of the comics' impact on corporate culture?

The survey group was mixed. Some said Dilbert had no effect. Some disagreed, including one who wrote, "I think it has made people more aware of the ridiculousness of corporate culture, corporate-speak and all those endlessly boring meetings. It also helps me to make sure I am not emulating the things that are counterproductive to my employees and our company."

Another respondent agreed, "You intentionally try to avoid 'Dilbertism' -- e.g. building a new department and calling it 'Center of Excellence' -- because you know it may be a lightning rod [of ridicule]."

Janine, a human resource specialist at a Downtown financial services firm said, "[Dilbert] hasn't created a revolution in management, but I do think he names the elephants and it has increased people's openness to talk about things differently."

Janine, of course, is partial to Catbert the evil HR manager, "Sometimes, it's like he's sitting in the corner of my office with a video camera."

Sometime later today, take a stroll through your office and count the Dilberts, pointed-hair mangers and Catberts. If that number is too high on the Dilbert quota, go sit in your office and hope that your personal Catbert doesn't read this column.

We want to tell your story! (Confidentiality guaranteed, for you and your employer.) Please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com, or leave her a message at 825-9205 (then hit 102 for her voicemail).