Because work is a four letter word. But so is life. And so is love.

How Work Became a Four Letter Word

Work is making us crazy. We yearn for early retirement yet fawn to keep our jobs. We dream of opening our own businesses yet have nightmares about getting laid off. From mailroom to boardroom, working life has all the earmarks of a schizophrenic breakdown. And then there’s Dilbert.

When Dilbert says senior executives are clueless obstructionists, I laugh. But wait a minute. I’m a senior executive.

When Dilbert says middle managers are diabolical idiots, I laugh. But wait a minute. I’m a middle manager.

When Dilbert says front-line employees are stupid, self-serving cubicle dwellers, I laugh. But wait a minute. I’m a front-line employee.

Eventually, everybody in the company gets slammed by Dilbert. Human Resources, IS, Finance, Sales, Admin Support, the mailroom, even those rats, the consultants. All fall under the satiric sneer of Dilbert judgment.

“Dilbert”, a comic strip created by Scott Adams, relates the experiences of a non-descript high tech engineer, Dilbert, and his dog, Dogbert, as they muddle through the trenches of corporate life. Dilbert’s world is peopled with heartless, clueless, idiotic managers and self-seeking, inane, cubicle dwelling employees.

“Good news” is when all the smart people have quit so you don’t have to worry about being downsized. Making deadlines means releasing products with defects and praying nobody notices. Rewards, when they are given at all, are for frantically patching up problems rather than for preventing them.

Dogbert, watching all this, has deduced that human beings are hopeless, bumbling idiots. His solution? Take over the world. As the next, self-proclaimed messiah, Dogbert will establish “DNRC” (Dogbert’s New Ruling Class), the only way to save the poor fools from themselves.

When I read Dilbert, I laugh a lot on the outside. But I cry a little on the inside. Because that sick world he’s describing is the place where I spend nearly half of my waking hours. And because that clueless idiot he’s ridiculing isn’t some anonymous archetype. It’s me.

Sure, our behavior at work is getting wackier and wackier. And Dilbert has done a great job of describing this disaster. (That’s our nervous laughter, seeing ourselves naked.) But is this really the way it has to be? Are you and I really so hopeless that our only fate is to lay down and play dead to the first demagogue that comes along, even if it’s a dog?

I think not. We are not hopeless and we are not dumb. But we are numb, numb from our struggle to survive in the madhouses our workplaces have become.

And why has work become so insane? Contrary to popular wisdom, at the root of what makes us nuts on the job is not “idiotic bosses” or “imbecile co-workers”. Rather, what makes us nuts, boss and front-line alike, is an addiction: our addiction to the habit of pseudo-work.

Now, at this point, I’d better be very clear about what I mean by work. Scott Adams has defined work as “anything you’d rather not be doing”. Very witty, but logically very flawed. If work is anything I’d rather not be doing, then by definition whenever I am doing what I want to be doing, I’m not working. And that is just not true.

Jim Young, a banker and close friend, has spent the last two years, in addition to his day job, studying for advanced certification in financial planning. Now Jim is a successful and highly regarded professional. He doesn’t have to pursue this certification. Nobody told him to do it. Jim wants to put in the time for this study because he values the increased expertise it will give him and the resultant improved service he can give his clients. Jim is doing what he wants to do. But if I told him that, therefore, he is not working, I think Jim would confidentially but quickly contact my husband regarding a power of attorney!

Jim is working. He is producing something (expertise) that creates value (increased self-esteem for Jim, increased portfolio balances for his clients!). And that is what work is.

Work is not a bad word and working is not a bad thing. In fact, working is a fundamental, necessary and healthy human activity. I need work. My world of work is the place where my aspirations, talents, hopes, dreams, skills, values, all those things that make me human, are either nurtured or killed. Some of my most basic needs have the best opportunity to be met through work: my social needs, my achievement needs, not to mention my economic needs.

But what happens when we don’t know the value of what we are producing? Or, worst, suspect that it has no value at all? Then our drive for work is crippled, derailed, waylaid. Now we no longer have work, we have painful drudgery, pseudo-work..

And so we look for painkillers, some way to numb our ache for real work. We spend our time on the job avoiding responsibility, placing blame and commiserating with fellow victims.

After awhile, like all druggies, we get hooked on this behavior. We barely recognize real work when it comes along. And when we do sense that here is an activity of true value, we avoid it like the plague (and sarcastically lampoon any naïve renegade who actually steps up to the job). From mailroom to boardroom, pseudo-work has become such a habit that we’ve forgotten the joy of pursuing and completing real work!

Wallowing in organizational class warfare does absolutely nothing to break this habit. In fact, it makes it worse. When the feckless intern announces that he has installed calendar software on the network so that folks can see each others schedules to more easily set up meetings, Dilbert suggests grabbing him and applying “cubicle justice”. Whenever a manager actually does get around to asking for my input, I must work to avoid giving a real answer, playing as stupid as possible (otherwise I might have to take responsibility for my comments and maybe even have to do more work because of them).

After a while, I start wondering, in my heart of hearts, if I really am stupid. After all, haven’t all the smart ones left? Maybe I really can’t do real work anymore. When I meet someone who actually loves their work (and tells me so), I find myself tasting the bitter bile of envy and longing. I end up feeling useless, helpless. And extending an open invitation to the Dogberts of the world to walk in and take over.

This has got to stop. Good work is just as essential to total health as a low fat diet and regular exercise. Each of us, you, me, the board director, the data processing clerk, the chief financial officer, the customer service rep, each of us has a deep personal need to connect value back into our work and into our workplaces. How to make that connection is what this book is all about.

Beginning with you, then moving on to co-workers, bosses, execs and, yes, even the board of directors, I’ll suggest specific techniques to help break the bad work addiction. These tactics are an attempt to help each of us reconnect to healthy work. And help those around us reconnect as well. Because a fundamental assumption underlying every suggestion is that each of us, regardless of our “level” in the organization, has a duty, as Gandhi said, to be the change we wish to see.

Nothing in this book is rocket science. But I do know that when I’ve followed the approaches suggested here, regardless of my spot on the org chart, I’ve felt good about myself and my work. And when I didn’t, I didn’t.

Scott Adams, in his best selling, The Dilbert Principle, bluntly states, “Everyone is an idiot”. In my humble opinion, he’s wrong. On the contrary, I think we’re pretty smart. Smart enough to make the connection, regain our sanity and get work to work.

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1 comment on “How Work Became a Four Letter Word”

  1. By L Dalton Reply

    Dr. Jane,
    Logging onto your site has been a pleasant surprise at a time of professional and personal restlessness for me. I didn’t expect my reaction to getting to know you through your bio and how you illustrate work. I found myself reflecting on much of my present repetitive day to day activities and how they compare to my prior work beliefs which were filled with energy and motivation. I have allowed myself to fall into a numb zone and must find my way off the path of “bad work addiction.” My staff, colleagues and mentors deserve more. I deserve more…

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