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Face it, Your Boss is a Rat
Who REALLY moved your cheese and why!
By: John Shepler
If you think something smells rotten in corporate
America, you're right. It's a foul aroma wafting in from the executive
suites, where the rats are jumping for joy at the success of their latest
manifesto, "Who Moved My Cheese?", subtitled...get this, "An Amazing Way
to Deal with Change in Your Work and In Your Life."
"We moved it," they squeal with delight, "and when
we want to, we'll move it again." Why? Very simple. Management has
discovered that moving or removing YOUR cheese can be quite advantageous
to them. But they've known that for a more than a decade. What they've
just begun to realize is that it's possible to sell employees on the idea
that this is perfectly OK. I'll elaborate, but first let me tell you how
it all began.
It Takes Only a Minute
Management has a Holy Grail and it is known as "the silver bullet," also
called the quick fix. It's epitomized in a small, thin book called "The
One Minute Manager" by Kenneth Blanchard, Ph.D. (piled higher and deeper)
and Spencer Johnson, M.D. (mostly deeper.) The theme of "The One Minute
Manager" is that business people, especially managers, spend way too much
time mulling over problems, internalizing them, and debating on what to do
next. Much better, proposed Blanchard and Johnson, to jump in, collect all
the facts that are at your fingertips or can be coaxed out of your
subordinates, and make a snap decision in one minute or less. Actually,
the primary decision is which employees can best be made to take ownership
of the problem, strategically moving the burning acid of responsibility
from your stomach to theirs. If things improve, you allocate no more than
one more minute to tell them how great they are doing. If the situation
deteriorates, you allocate that same minute to making darn sure that they
feel terrible about it and will work even harder to keep the problem from
returning to you.
A Revolution in Business Thinking
Think this is funny? It's revolutionary. The enabling power of one minute
management has caused the entire Fortune 500 to refocus from the concept
of stewardship, with a responsibility to the community that spans
generations, to a slavish devotion to the needs of the institutional
investor, primarily an increased stream of earnings every fiscal quarter.
White-collar layoffs, almost unheard of prior to the 1980s, are now a
standard tool of expense management. With only a minute needed for problem
solving, the span of control for managers has increased as much as ten
fold and the number of people assigned to non-producing supervisory
functions proportionally reduced. Productivity, as measured by corporate
earnings, soared to create the raging bull market of the 1990s. Johnson
and Blanchard are lauded in corporate circles. But the emphasis on rapid
decision making has led to shortened attention spans. It's already time
for something new...
The Big Cheese
The toll of one minute everything is burning out once naive and eager
employees, anxious for their leg up the corporate ladder. The abuses of
ever increasing demands have created calluses of cynicism that are best
portrayed in the characters of Scott Adams' Dilbert. Now everyone sees
themselves as an oppressed Dilbert or Wally and adopts a
passive/aggressive approach to corporate survival.
Re-enter Johnson, sans Blanchard, with a new silver
bullet, this one cleverly disguised as an irresistible morsel of cheese.
And who can resist the power of cheese? It's a story that is designed once
again to get the onus of action into the mind of the common employee.
Without giving too much away, here's how it goes.
It seems that there are two mice and two small
people living in a maze. They dine on a seemingly endless supply of cheese
provided by an unseen benevolent caretaker. All are complacent and happy
with this scenario, until one day the cheese is gone. The mice shrug and
take off down the corridors of the maze to find more cheese, as you'd
expect lab mice to do. The two little guys, however, get in a snit and
simply pout in expectation that the cheese will soon return. Whoever
created this situation must resolve it. Only intense pangs of hunger and a
sense of futility in waiting anymore drive them out in search of
replacement cheese. Finally they got the point...but what point?
Why Are All The Managers Smiling?
No wonder management is doubled over in delight with
this literary masterpiece. First of all, the new rules for business are
clearly being spelled out. Management provides the nutritious cheese in
the form of salaries, benefits and perks, but they may be changed or
removed at any time without explanation. That's acceptable and to be
expected. When changes occur, it is the employees' job to go scurrying
after new cheese, preferably without hesitation. The employee must sniff
out where there might be opportunity, negotiate an unknowingly complex
maze, and persist until he or she finds enough cheese to be temporarily
sated. What's more, these new rules are perfectly allowable. The happy
employees of the future are the ones who enjoy the thrill of the cheese
chase and ask nothing but the opportunity to be allowed to run the maze
each day with the assumption that somewhere there just might actually be
cheese. No guarantees.
We Should Have Known All Along
Another reason that management is in stitches is in the irony of the
symbolism chosen by Johnson. How many times have you heard "it's a rat
race and the rats are winning." Yeah, they are. But the rats aren't the
little people scurrying about in the office. They're the ones who own the
maze and decide how much cheese is put in and when. Everyone else is
reduced into becoming meek mice, scurrying through the maze of cubicles,
hopefully sniffing the air for a whiff of the benevolently provided
cheese. Oh, you don't work in a maze? Climb up on your chair sometime and
get an aerial view of your office space. It's no accident that modern
office layout has evolved to emulate the rat maze. It perfectly supports
the new paradigm. Now run, mouse, run.
The ultimate irony is that all good mice must
eventually come to an end. Even in the laboratory, cooperative white mice
are removed from the maze when the experimental results are achieved. What
becomes of them? Well, when there are more mice than are needed, there is
no reason to indefinitely keep feeding them. They must be disposed of.
Some become pets and keep honorary positions. The more fearful forms of
corporate disposal include firings, layoffs, demotions, forced early
retirements, and scaring the meek into bolting on their own for other
opportunities. Now I ask you, was Scott Adams prophetic when he assigned
the job of Human Resources Director to a cat, Catbert?
The Light at the End of the Maze is Outside
"Who Moved My Cheese?" is a long running best seller. It's obviously
supported by legions of upper management who find the employee
re-education benefits so valuable that they order copies by the carton and
distribute them to the workforce. But this book is also being gobbled up
by anxious employees, wanting desperately to know what the new rules of
the game are and how they can best comply.
"Who Moved My Cheese?" should be taken as a warning.
Just like "Animal Farm" alerted a generation to the dangers of
totalitarianism, this story is a cautionary tale for today's workforce. Do
you really want to spend the rest of your life hoping that someone will
drop some cheese into your cube?
The real ways to win this game are to own the cheese factory, hoard some
cheese for times of need, and don't get so addicted to chasing the "big
cheese" that you live for nothing else than running the maze. But those
are other stories.
First Published: December 27, 2000 on
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Is this YOUR fate?