Dilbertville for Dummies
by Karen De Coster
Feature articles of this type are becoming common these days – Cubicles: The Great Mistake. Over at the Mises.org blog, Stephen Carson reminds us how the State is everywhere, always, in terms of trespassing within the private realm to distort and exacerbate varied aspects of corporate life.
As a CPA formerly engaged in corporate tax work, I indeed agree that one of the slayers of individuality in the workplace – and thus the coming of the dreaded cubicle – is the tax law debacle, which coaxed corporations away from larger office space consisting of many offices, and toward smaller office space with a more "creative" way of packing it all in. Thus less of an expense depreciated over a long term, and more in the short term. Corporations, of course, are always reinventing accounting, business strategies, and culture to conform to State edict. One can look almost anywhere within the corporation – from operations to cultural characteristics – and trace its worst features back to State diktat. Just look at how tax laws and stock options changed the way corporate executives are paid, hence shifting their focus from long-term to short-term. What a screwed-up mess that is.
However, the tax laws, I suggest, are just a portion of the problem regarding cubicleism. The far greater influence on cubicle life is the repudiation of individualism and the total move toward the collectivist-egalitarian mentality. The 60s and 70s may have brought us tax rules that stimulated fixed asset reorganization, but that era also ushered in groupthink, and thus the "group project" and or collective, rah-rah team mentality. I'm not speaking of the oftentimes necessary teamwork demanded by certain goals and/or pursuits, but rather the unconditional move toward sunny democracy in the workplace, where the lowest common denominator factor reigns supreme.
Groupthink was originally defined as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." Groupthink gave us the Iraq WMD falsehood, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1986 Challenger fiasco, and the current state of US "Intelligence" operations. Currently, the university system in the US is raging with one forced group project after another. In fact, just try and get through any MBA class without a group project being shoved down your pipe. I even found a similar situation in my Econ Masters program – which usually is, and should be, very much oriented toward individual reading, reading, and more reading. For a Public Finance class, a particular clown tried the groupthink routine, forcing me to drop a class, and delay graduating by three months.
The cubicle enforces groupthink. Cubicles are meant to break down individuality, privacy, and the notion that one can be "territorial" or perhaps even be homesteading. It is a wee bit like the military in that the cubicle design seeks to displace any thoughts of "me," and instead, one look around from any seat in the cubicle cockpit reminds you that you are not you, but "we." In addition, the cubicle arena offers managers a greater sense of control. The same way that a border collie herds and controls the sheep, so does the manager round up his scrubs so they remain close enough to be reminded of who is in control. But then again, humans aren’t sheep. Or are they?
Some corporations – including one office I recently visited – have moved to the most revolting setups wherein the cubicles are head-to-head, with two long rows facing each other, without even the traditional high wall for that teensy bit of privacy. This setup I saw had low walls, barely rising above the desktops. One could not possibly make a phone call in such environment, let alone concentrate on one’s work, hop on a speaker phone conference call, or have a discussion with a co-worker about your favorite food or TV show. What a repulsive environment. I asked about the setup, and was responded to with the usual answer: "Management here really doesn't like private offices. This way we really function close, as a team." Yea, smelling your co-worker's armpits and hearing his personal business every time his wife calls is real teamwork.
In a great number of workplace self-therapy, psychobabble books – such as Susan Jackson’s Diversity in the Workplace: Human Resources Initiatives – there’s always a heap of suggestions as to how you too can be more group oriented. You can be instructed in the ways of meaningful workplace diversity by allowing yourself to engage in silly exercises such as gathering with your group and doing the following:
Never leave the other members of the group.
Never refer to oneself by name, only by group membership.
Thus does "diversity" come to mean oneness. No wonder why people are so confused. And you thought Ayn Rand’s Anthem was silly?
As far as the workplace goes, I'm waiting for the walls between toilets to be shed, too. That way it'll be just like an Arkansas boot camp. We can share our bomb-dropping and personal cleansing as well. Just strip away that individuality, break down that veneer of self-assurance, and ye shall have the perfect, little, collectivist-moron, ignoramus corporate bee in your midst. Fortunately, good people like the ones at Fortune magazine are recognizing the underlying themes of such concepts as commie-cubicles.
In terms of corporate Dilbertville, we must ask, who’s to benefit? Certainly not the individual. Definitely not the organization, as far as retaining creativity and stimulus. Perhaps the only benefit is for the border collies, barking at the sheep, to keep them in line and in their homogenous herds. That sure as heck is a far cry from diversity.