Dilbert: The Horrifying Truth

Most problems in business are explained by the depressing notion that nobody really thinks anymore...Tom Godwin, Publicis Groupe.

In 1984 American telecom giant Pacific Bell downsized, restructured and rebranded. Just for good measure, execs agreed that culture needed a makeover too. So they hired an expert to help reprogram the way people thought, talked and behaved at work. The intervention (now notorious) had a $160m price tag and would put each staff member through 20 days of intensive training over a six month period. Controversially, a new professional language was imposed. It’s purpose was, in the words of Professor Andre Spicer, to “awaken people from their bureaucratic doze and open their eyes to a higher level of corporate consciousness”. The plan backfired. For one thing, the language quickly mutated into a hopeless babel of obfuscatory jargon that baffled everyone. Secondly, (and rather mysteriously), the new tongue led to more and longer meetings.

A variety of staff reactions ensued ranging from angry letters to congressmen, to a spate of resignations. “If the energy that had been put into the program had been put to the business at hand, we all would have gotten a lot more done,” recalled a former manager. The most famous reaction however came from a disillusioned IT officer who started a subversive comic strip that lampooned the new language and the corrosive effect it was having on common sense and business continuity. The rebel was none other than Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

Dilbert’s dystopian world reminds us that obscure and meaningless shop talk is not peculiar to Pacific Bell but has become de rigueur in most modern corporations. Journalist Steven Poole refers to it as a “spirit-sapping indignity that relentlessly batters the ears of the modern office worker”. It is highly contagious, clogging inboxes, fogging meetings; and corrupting debate.

Some examples: Once I heard a manager tell his team that he needed “a bigger unlock on the numbers on a go-forward basis.” The nature of the unlock and how far forward he needed it remained a mystery. A recent email stressed that a brand needed to “leverage the power of story to make more robust claims that would help it to participate more optimally in the circular economy”. As far as bull5h1t bingo goes, that was nearly a full house.

I think business is at a crossroads. In the words of Morpheus from the Matrix, we can either settle for the Blue Pill of indifference and continue to relish the soul-clogging fog of vacuous language. Alternatively, there’s the Red Pill and the rabbit hole that follows it. Choose the latter and you’re in good company. The LSE’s Andre Spicer and anthropologist David Graeber have written books on the subject. The Financial Telegraph’s Lucy Kellaway writes a weekly column on business guff (which also culminates in an annual award).

Here are three reasons they find Business Bull5h1t (hereafter BBS) is so serious:

BBS short circuits deep thought and reflection

The propagation of BBS is an art form. It is created and legitimised by senior managers and their consultants behind the closed doors of boardrooms and breakaways. It is parotted and distributed by compliant middle managers. Finally, it’s up to the rest of the organisation to metabolise it and, most problematically, execute accordingly. This insidious ecosystem slowly chokes out the lucid, logical and curious minority who ask the hard questions. Crap becomes the final word.

BBS keeps out dissenting voices

Andre Spicer describes BBS as a “linguistic barbed wire fence” that protects the “expert” corporate class from interloping amateurs, debutantes or intellectual upstarts. As a form of insider social capital, it’s the ultimate trump card; a politics based on emotional appeal rather than evidence and reason.

BBS misrepresents reality

In the classic war movie “Full Metal Jacket”, a soldier nicknamed Joker is reporting on a massacre in a village outside Saigon. As bodies are flung into a mass grave, an angry Marine corp officer corners Joker to demand why he has a peace sign on his helmet. “How about getting with the program?” he says fatuously. “Why don’t you jump on the team?” he continues, “get out there for the big win? It’s a hardball world son. We have to try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over!” History shows us that there would be no “big win” for “team USA” and that the “peace craze” would soon shipwreck the entire war effort in Vietnam. The colonel’s BS (like that spoken by many modern managers) deafened him to the truth. 60 years ago, work (like war) was different. It wasn’t that easy to hide behind empty language. As David Graeber points out, “the link between what one said and what one did was swift, conclusive and brutal”. Because of this intimate connection with the production process, everyone could see when words drifted from reality. Work was transparent, empirical and...well...somehow more honest than it is today.

The rabbit hole is deep. Is there a way out? Perhaps but it won’t be easy. As Andre Spicer points out, “our own individual efforts are not enough. Putting management-speak in its place is going to require a collective effort…an anti BS movement dedicated to rooting out empty language from government, popular culture, the private sector, education and our private lives”.

Are you on boa….I mean, are you in?

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