The hitchhiker's guide to the cubicle

Jun 17 2008 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

It's been said that there is more social commentary in science fiction than in any other form of popular writing. Admittedly, this is mostly said by IT folks attempting to justify why they spend their weekends gathering together and wearing pointy rubber ears, but they may have a point.

I'm no Science Fiction geek, but I am a fan of good writing, so I recently curled up with the complete set of Douglas Adams' "Hithchiker's Guide to The Galaxy" books. I found not only a lot of laughs but an incredible amount of wisdom on the subject of the despairing workplace.

Now, the British have long made the plight of middle managers and those at their mercy part of the culture, so the fact that Adams might takes some easy (if painfully accurate) shots is no big surprise - and I found a lot of the usual stuff as well as something that made me pause (and not, as my wife said, because the words were too big).

First, there is the notion of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" itself. Not so much a book as a computer program, written by various contributors from around the galaxy who write and submit things as they come across them. In fact, here's the quote:

"In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older more pedestrian work in two important respectsÖ."

Yes, Douglas Adams foresaw the rise of Wikipedia. Written by just any darned fool who cares to contribute it's the go-to for quick information, including this description of middle management, for which I've never forgiven them.

"Middle management is a layer of management in an organization whose primary job responsibility is to monitor activities of subordinates while reporting to upper management."

Sounds like it was written by someone with a "doesn't meet expectations" performance review or two in their past.

The most often cited workplace example in the Guide are the Vogons, who are repulsive creatures, totally enamored of bureaucracy whose only response to argument is "resistance is useless!" shouted progressively louder as resistance increases.

I find this completely unfair since most of the people I find exhibiting Vogon-like behavior are, in fact, quite charming and well dressed Of course they would be, since consultants generally make more money than the rest of us.

Their smiles are intact even as they pull out copies of "Who Moved My Cheese" and beat you about the head and shoulders with it, never realizing that you are not change resistant, they're just about to do something mind-bogglingly stupid and silly you felt the need to point it out.

Then again, maybe you never read the Hitchhiker - I'm sorry , Wikipedia - description of your job. Shut up and monitor your subordinates...

No, the piece that really hit home to me is the Job Description of the President of the Galaxy:

"Ö one of the major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary; anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."

To add the words of my idol, Hunter S Thompson, 20 years before Douglas Adams: "Anyone who wants the job of President [ or, I submit, Manager- addition is mine] that badly should be automatically disqualified."

This has a lot to do with how managers are selected and promoted in the first place. Why are so many managers unable to delegate and drunk with power? Because we ask people to volunteer to go through the process those most eager are the first to sign up, and new managers frequently want the job for the wrong reasons.

Either they want to be in charge - a dangerous illusion at best, and anyone who actually lusts for power will micromanage people within an inch of their lives - or they think they'll fix everything because they know the answers. This knowledge is dangerous. And just as a cynic is a disappointed romantic, an ineffective, bitter middle manager is frequently a go-getter who has been gotten to.

No, the important words in that description were, "who manages to get people to let them do it to them". If you read any job description for a management position you'll see terms like " is responsible for the performance of..." and "authority overÖ".

It's a megalomaniac's dream. The reality, of course, is that getting the most from your people has little to do with your job title or the role description in the Employee Handbook. Nobody tells us that until it's too late.

Organizations don't spend a lot of time looking at their folks and identifying candidates, it's easier to ask who wants the job and interview them. Even the Vogons can see the paradox inherent in this, but then they bask in that kind of leadership so it's not a big deal.

That this is so clear to me could make me and any right thinking person angry but, again, Douglas Adams was prescient. The most important words in the Hitchhiker's Guide are on the cover.

"Don't Panic!"

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.