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​Scott Adams owes his success to everyday odd behavior in the modern workplace. That and his own willingness to take risks.

Adams was a typical corporate worker when, with no formal art training, he created Dilbert, the beleaguered white-collar employee dubbed the "hero of the workplace" by the San Francisco Examiner. First published in 1989, the strip that pokes gentle, mocking fun at office life was soon running in newspapers across the country and a comic strip star was born.

Since then, Dilbert has become not just a cultural touchstone, but also a bit of a reality check for executives nationwide, with managers writing Adams to tell him they changed or avoided policies because "We don't want to end up in a 'Dilbert' comic."

And there's no doubt HR professionals don't want to be identified with Catbert, the evil director of HR, a thoroughly sadistic character who makes sport of abusing Dilbert and his co-workers. After Adams introduced Catbert as an unnamed character, readers said they wanted more. Adams obliged, and the perception of human resources may never be the same. Catbert's irrational policies―including mandatory unpaid overtime, zero privacy rights and unpaid vacation―literally suck the life out of the company's employees. And then there's Catbert's motto: "You can't spell 'who cares' without HR."

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Adams is also the author of best-selling books such as Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook (HarperBusiness, 1996), The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, 1997), and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Portfolio, 2013) and Win Bigly (Portfolio, 2013).

In his new book, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America (Portfolio, 2019), Adams suggests that many otherwise intelligent people are trapped by unproductive ways of thinking. The reason for this, he says, is they don't have experience across multiple domains and thus are not equipped to think more productively.

Loserthink introduces readers to the most useful thought patterns in a variety of disciplines. Adams wants to help employees identify mental barriers and how to break through them, as well as escape from their own "mental prisons."

Adams recently spoke with HR Magazine about his career path and his new book.

Life Before 'Dilbert'

I spent about eight years each with a major bank and then the local phone company. The beauty of both those careers was that I had multiple jobs and they were quite different. I've done everything from being a bank teller to running a training program. I've worked in management, financial analysis, computer programming and commercial lending. I've been a product manager, a supervisor and a strategist.

The jobs were very similar in what was wrong with them; the things that were bad about one tended to be exactly the same as what was bad about the other. If you put people together in some sort of hierarchy, you get the same types of selfishness and bad behavior.

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Ideas and the Evolution of 'Dilbert'

Ideas for the strip arise through a combination of people suggesting things as well as my own memories of corporate life. Lately, I've been tweeting every week or two "Do you have anything that's bothering you at work?"

I often get hundreds of suggestions that remind me of my own experience at work. I usually don't take up a suggestion unless it reminds me of something from my own work life so I can speak from experience.

Over the years, some things have changed in "Dilbert," like the surface stuff. He no longer wears a necktie at work, and the employees are in casual clothes with smartphones and little ID badges around their necks on lanyards.

But the biggest change is the power between management and workers. When I was writing "Dilbert" in the 1990s, it was the era of downsizing and offshoring and it seemed as if the companies had all the power. Employers were looking to reduce the number of employees, so the average worker didn't have any negotiating leverage.

Now, things are exactly the opposite. If you have any technical education at all, you'll have lots of offers and nobody wants to fire you. But if you're just a good employee, you have some power, too, because the labor market is so tight.

Keys to Getting the Workplace Right

I focus on people's mental foibles, so I write about when people try to be rational and they're failing. They try to create a system that works, but it doesn't. Some of them have good intentions but end up doing the wrong thing because of blind spots or selfishness.

Those absurdities will always be a part of the working world because we're such a fundamentally irrational species.

I'm a trained hypnotist, and one of the things I learned as a hypnotist is that the world is backward from how most people see it. People assume other people are mostly rational. The hypnotist learns that nine times out of 10 we're irrational on all the big stuff, such as who do we love, where do we work and other really big decisions.

The workplace is a whole bunch of irrational people who are irrational 90 percent of the time and just papering it over with rationalizations.

Office Work Then vs. Now

The workplace is different from when I was there, and a large part of that is technology and the advent of smartphones. I can't imagine being in a cubicle while also having a smartphone. I don't think I would get any work done.

But I don't think the corporate experience is better or worse, minus the changes in technology, than it was 30 years ago. Take the physical cubicle—that thing seems to just last forever. You thought people might come up with a better setup, but the only recent idea is the open-office concept, and people seem to hate that just as much.

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The task of management is to make everything simple enough so that employees don't make mistakes. In effect, the natural arc of history is for work to become less and less meaningful for a whole host of people. So when your job gets smaller and smaller—and your role gets reduced to filling out these forms for this one task—that can be pretty soul-sucking.

But I'm optimistic about capitalism in that nobody's come up with a better solution. We have to expect that there will always be good and bad workplaces and that bad workplaces can become good and good workplaces can become bad. The only thing you can count on is the average, and the average will generally be economical and profitable.

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Mistakes and Encouraging Risk in the Workplace

The fear of doing something wrong is a huge mitigating factor that holds people back. But you can actually learn to absorb criticism and embarrassment and realize that they don't hurt you. At my age, 62, I have decades of making horrible mistakes and being deeply embarrassed—and none of it matters.

I recommend putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, such as joining Toastmasters or taking up a sport you're not good at. There are lots of ways to put yourself in situations you know are psychologically uncomfortable but that eventually you'll get used to. It takes practice and looking at the big picture and understanding that none of this hurts you physically.

Now, a company can't be stable while encouraging people to make all the mistakes they want, but you also need to allow people to make mistakes, such as building a prototype that doesn't work or proposing something that gets shot down.

You can definitely promote rational risk taking, as long as you test rapidly to determine if this new idea is going to work. The healthiest mindset is if you fail nine times and the 10th try works, then the other nine were good, too.

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Loserthink and the Workplace

Loserthink is not about your intelligence or your knowledge. It's about effectiveness. It's about lacking experience across different fields of study. For example, you can be brilliant at what you do, but you wouldn't know how to think like an economist or psychologist or historian or other people who have different frameworks for figuring things out.

The book is about finding those blind spots and coming to understand how different fields think of things, without the need to master the entire field.

HR, to the extent it's involved in training, can help fill in those blind spots. But the training needs to be intelligently designed to specifically address those areas.

One of the main benefits of my time in corporate life was that the companies I worked for had extensive training programs and you could take all kinds of courses. I could take classes to learn how the sales team worked, even though I wasn't a salesperson. I could learn how the technologists in the company did things or how the financial people made forecasts. That was enlightening, as well as a path up for someone who was willing to learn.

The blind spots tend to be common. If you look, eight out of 10 employees could use a refresher on how an economist might think, while a different eight might need some information on psychology and persuasion.

David Ward is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

What Bothers You at Work?

This poll is inspired by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, who regularly asks readers about their work gripes.


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