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Apr 25, 2011

Dilbert management style revisited

Managers should care about people, despite what some experts claim

By Dave Crisp

A title mentioning the Dilbert management style caught my eye recently… shared by Karl Moore on Henry Mintzberg’s Coaching Ourselves blog. What a convoluted way some items have of catching our attention. At first I was outraged by blogger Steve Denning’s analysis of Bob Sutton’s work.

If this sounds like name dropping, it is. Everyone’s getting in on act of critiquing what’s wrong with management and this only accelerates the confusion around the metaphorical, yet too real, financial meltdown and the latest actual reactor meltdowns in Japan — stunning examples of bad management. Are commentators starting to stumble over each other so much we aren’t listening to each other’s key points and the proof?

We all know something’s wrong with management the way we’ve been doing it… and yet the tools we’d been using were great for getting us out of the industrial revolution into scientific management and through the amazing economic and technical progress that got us to computers, the Internet, incessant world-travel and fabulous education for vast numbers of people.

The pace of learning and change has been frantic and appears not to be slowing in the least — and it might not, given how many of us are contributing. But it’s a double-edged sword. Our prolific contributions are making it harder to pick out effective strategies, even though the sheer volume seems to focus now in one single direction.

With Steve Denning’s piece, we’re faced with a puzzle. There are so many brilliant minds competing to dump their ideas on the Internet and into seminars and conferences on every imaginable subject — where can we find anyone stepping back and making sense of the whole thing? Boards and executives undoubtedly are paying attention to advice for better management, but the cacophony of comment and criticism has to be deafening and confusing.

It turns out, when I dug further into Denning’s work, that he’s a recognized advanced thinker in these areas, yet his premise that Sutton’s work is worthless is inane. Stanford’s Sutton is author of The No Asshole Rule, which I’ve mentioned positively before, and more recently Good Boss, Bad Boss and he went on to have the most popular blog post last year on Harvard Business Review — 12 Things Good Bosses Believe. Denning mistakenly trashes Sutton’s premise that managers should care about employees.

This alone is worth taking time to debunk because the tsunami of opinion is running totally in favor of Sutton’s view, not Denning’s. The fact a major management guru can bash this is news indeed… but it also shows the limits of individuals attempting to deal logically with the full subject of what needs to change in managing organizations.

Denning argues Sutton is pandering to an ineffective philosophy when he claims we ought to value employees and treat them decently, that this is a Dilbert approach where middle managers “do nothing but try to get by” and mollify employees. This seems like a truly weird argument to me on all counts. I appreciate creative minds make mistakes on the way to new insights, but Denning’s main point seems ridiculous as a standalone. The only thing that counts, he insists, is that every manager and employee strive to “delight the customer” and moving our focus off that to worry about employees is foolish.  

Right off the top, why does this have to be a standalone objective? Why is it an either/or proposition? Have we not progressed past the simple view that we can focus on only one thing at a time? Why can’t we help delight customers by treating employees as we want them to treat customers — a truism Sears Roebuck demonstrated as a measurable example of success some 20 years ago.

Pretty much everyone can surely relate. One personal example: On vacation visits to Florida my spouse absolutely insists on shopping at Publix over its main competitor there, Winn Dixie, and I agree. When you look at the stores, I’d guess Winn Dixie’s are a bit more modern and widely stocked where we go, aiming to “delight” customers with product, but what distinguishes Publix is tough to copy or buy — they truly seem to treat staff decently, who in turn treat each other and customers like real individual people, from the managers to the checkout staff to the mentally challenged baggers they often employ. The difference is palpable and it more than makes up for lacking new, glitzy or massive stores. We just flat out feel better in their stores. They delight us.

What even a single example illustrates is that you can do both, that’s it’s not either/or. So where have we failed with Denning to get this very basic idea across? Why is there such a divide between effective, decent HR strategy and line-management thinking that even a guru misses it entirely? It’s surely not rocket science to suggest that customers are more likely to be “delighted” shopping with happy, friendly people serving than with sour, grumpy workers who are treated badly by managers.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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We're all in this together
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:48:00 PM by Dave Crisp
Thanks Bob,
I'm sure Denning was trying to make some positive points about where management should be headed, but he certainly got off on the wrong foot. I think it reflects the tendency we all have to respond quickly to the surface impression that material posted on the Internet leaves us with. Inevitably we're compressing our thoughts and highlighting one or two aspects of a given subject... and they can then easily 'be taken out of context' - meaning 'out of the larger body of work' a person has presented. We talk in snippets, we're critiqued in snippets... and that leads to reinforcing the rather foolish effort to 'find the one or two key things that make all the difference.' While great management isn't rocket science, it isn't as simple as 'focus on the customer' or 'treat employees well.' We need 'all of the above.'
Bob Sutton responds
Monday, April 25, 2011 5:44:00 PM by Bob Sutton

Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Honestly, I was shocked by Denning's piece. I talk about the importance of empathy for customers a moderate amount in the book, and do point to evidence and cases that show, when employees are treated with respect and dignity, they, in turn, treat customers better.

I also was careful to include a chapter on doing the dirty work in Good Boss, Bad Boss... arguing that good bosses do not tolerate incompetence and do not put off tough decisions, but rather take action — but give people as much dignity and respect as possible still. Finally, I would also note that I have been teaching hands-on classes — to both executives and Stanford students — for years where students apply design thinking to improve customer experience, most notably an executive program called Customer-focused innovation.

No book or list can cover all of the the things that good companies and bosses do — and I do disagree with Denning that all that matters is delighting customers, as even if that is your goal, the best organizations — I think of IDEO, Pixar, Men's Wearhouse, Procter & Gamble, Facebook, Google and on and on — on the theory that people are more likely to do work that delights customers if they are motivated, feel safe to innovate and act, and — most basically — come back every morning and produce the products, services, and experiences that are delivered to customers.