Thursday, November 11, 2010

the wellspring of economic growth and progress

I am a student of economic growth and development. In last Saturday's issue of the Wall Street Journal Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert, had a column outlining an important key to economic progress heretofore unnoticed: hamster-brained sociopath bosses.

The Wall Street Journal
November 6, 2010, p. C3

The Perfect Stimulus: Bad Management

If no one had a hamster-brained sociopath for a boss, who would start new businesses?


One of my earliest childhood jobs involved shoveling manure at my uncle's dairy farm in upstate New York. Things were going well until my uncle explained that no matter how well I performed, I would never be promoted to farmer. Or even cow. I had hit the manure ceiling.

I consider that experience my first economic stimulus package—the unwelcome realization that my current job was a dead end. While my classmates were building snowmen with carrot noses (mostly the girls) and carrot genitalia (mostly the boys), I started to do some serious career planning about how to get out of the fecal relocation profession and into the warm embrace of a loving corporation. I studied hard, and I earned money for college by mowing lawns, shoveling snow, shoveling even more manure, and (my personal favorite) shoveling frozen manure covered with snow. I saved my meager funds, and with the help of my parents, who both took extra jobs, plus a few scholarships, I clawed my way into college.

Years later, my dream came true. I got a job with a large bank, and I never again needed to shovel manure. Corporations use something called PowerPoint instead. Thanks to my farm training, I was so good at designing PowerPoint slides that my coworkers called me "The Natural." Jaws dropped when I introduced my signature move: the frozen PowerPoint slide with snow on top.

In those days, I was a furious bundle of ambition and determination. The old-timers told me I had a "rocket strapped to my ass." All I needed to do was get my "ticket punched." It wasn't long before I was able to enjoy my second economic stimulus package: bad management.

Though most of my immediate bosses were entirely reasonable and competent, the organization at large was riddled with hamster-brained sociopaths in leadership roles. Surely, I thought, this must be a problem that exists no place else on Earth. Otherwise we'd all be living in caves and holding long meetings on the feasibility of using sticks as stabby things.

One day, a position opened above me, and I was the most obvious candidate to fill it. My boss called me into her office and said she had some bad news. She explained that the media was giving our company a lot of heat because almost all of our managers and executives were white males. Promoting me, she explained, would only make things worse. I asked how long I might need to wait for all of this to blow over. My boss was vague, but she said the timeline involved smoothing out the effects of two centuries of corporate discrimination.

I decided to jump ship and go where my talent and hard work would be rewarded. I took a job at the local phone company and soon discovered, to my horror, that banking was not the only industry in the world managed by hamster-brained sociopaths. Once again, my immediate bosses were quite capable, but interacting with other departments was like being the last human in Zombieville and trying to buy groceries at dusk. Still, it was marginally better than shoveling manure, so I doubled down. I finished my MBA classes at night and distinguished myself as an up-and-comer. One day my boss called me into his office and explained that the media was giving the phone company a lot of heat because almost all of the managers and executives were white males. So, he explained, promoting me would only make things worse. You might say that was the day that the "Dilbert" comic strip was born, although I had not yet drawn one. Let's call it a tipping point. From that day on, I considered myself an entrepreneur. All I had to do was figure out what business I was in. The phone company was willing to pay for almost any sort of semi-relevant training or education that I was willing to endure. It was like an accidental school for entrepreneurs. From an economic viewpoint, I was in exactly the right place, with exactly the right amount of career discomfort.

I wasn't suffering alone. Many of my co-workers already had active side businesses and ambitious expansion plans. The guy in the cubicle behind me was running a concert equipment rental business. Across from me was a guy running a computer tech support business. We had Amway dealers, Mary Kay sales people, inventors, authors and just about any other business you can imagine. That's not counting all of the business plans in the incubation phase. I think we all understood that working in a cubicle and being managed by Satan's learning-challenged little brother was not a recipe for happiness.

The way I describe it may sound pessimistic, but consider the alternative. Imagine a parallel universe where employees enjoy going to work. They feel empowered and fulfilled—so much so that they don't care about the size of their paychecks and never want to leave their jobs. That's exactly the sort of nightmare scenario that would destroy the economy. The last thing this world needs is a bunch of dopey-happy workers who can't stop humming and grinning. Our system requires a continuous supply of highly capable people who are so disgruntled with their jobs that they are willing to chew off their own arms to escape their bosses. The economy needs hamster-brained sociopaths in management to drive down the opportunity cost of entrepreneurship. Luckily, we're blessed with an ample supply.

To put it in plainer terms: The primary purpose of management is to kill any hope that staying in your current job will work out for you. That sort of hope is like gravel in the engine of progress. The economy needs workers who are fed up, desperate and willing to quit their jobs for something better. Remember, only quitters can be winners, because you can't do something great until first you quit doing something that isn't.

You see this same dynamic with countries. The United States is a nation founded by people who couldn't stand the leaders of their old homelands. I'm no geneticist, but I suspect that the "screw it, I'm out of here" attitude can get passed on. We're probably the most disgruntled, self-loathing, hard-to-satisfy people on Earth. It's no wonder our GDP is awesome.

Israel is another perfect example. The entire nation is full of people who were displeased with their last situation. And Israel's economy is one of the most vibrant in the world. If every Israeli became satisfied at once, they couldn't keep the lights on for a week.

I have always assumed there's a correlation between imagination and risk-taking. You wouldn't leave an unpleasant but relatively safe situation unless you could imagine a better outcome. So the people who leave a company first tend to be the visionaries who can best imagine entrepreneurial success. The last wave of people who leave are usually excreted just before the door is chained. They didn't imagine it would happen so soon. Bad management is how imagination gets wings.

—Scott Adams is the creator of 'Dilbert.'


Debbie Flack said...

This is hilarious! Where is the original article? I'd love to send it to a few friends who would appreciate it.

~ Debbie F.

RB said...

Wall Street Journal requires a subscription so that is why I reprinted it in its entirety here.

Anonymous said...

Total copyright violation. You could put a link to the article.

RB said...

I added a source in two places.. thank you for your comment.