A few years ago, I consulted for a Fortune 500 company on young professional development. The CEO publicly proclaimed that this incoming talent represented the future of the organization, and that nurturing it was his top priority. He put his money where his mouth was. That company spent millions of dollars creating a young professional training program that was the envy of its competitors.
The fancy training program may have impressed the young professionals when they walked through the door, but it was another story once they started their jobs and had a chance to experience the company’s culture day in and day out. The young employees complained bitterly about languishing in dead-end positions with minimal guidance for years on end. The initial bells and whistles weren’t enough to hold them. Bored and frustrated, many resigned.
Enter the Dilbert Paradox
Last week, I attended the Deloitte University OnTalent Roundtable with a group of top HR executives, and John Seely Brown put his finger on exactly what I’d witnessed in that Fortune 500 company. He called it the Dilbert Paradox:
These days hardly a news cycle goes by without one CEO or another talking about talent. How important talent is to success. How worrisome it is that talent is becoming scarce. And how determined CEOs are to win the race for talent.
At the same time rarely a day seems to pass without a newly clipped Dilbert comic strip getting pasted to someone’s cubicle wall. Dilbert is popular not just for the laughs, but because it so effectively captures the stultifying nature of today’s corporate workplaces.
The contrast is striking. On the one hand we have public declarations of love for talent from the top of the organization. On the other hand skeptical, even cynical messages of unhappiness float up from employees. Ironic, yes—and indicative of a deep problem in how many companies approach and regard their talented workers.
If you’ve worked in any large or small organization—particularly since 2008—you’ve surely seen the Dilbert Principle in action. Do these scenarios sound familiar?
A public company with mass layoffs held on to its top performers only to make each one do the jobs of three people without additional compensation.
A small business credits its employees with making it the local phenom it is today, yet behind the scenes managers treat them like hired hands that can be replaced at any second.
A nonprofit organization requires innovation in order to stay alive, but employee suggestions for essential change are ignored in favor of bureaucratic stasis.
In one engineering firm, the average employee age is 55, but instead of taking active steps to retain the new generation of professionals, management cuts their training and development budget and leaves them unprepared for leadership roles.
What’s the Solution?
Solving the Dilbert Paradox is easier for small businesses because fundamentally, it requires a total re-alignment of operations that elevates the importance of talent. Such an overhaul is not as painful when you are a small-to-medium sized organization with plenty of room for adaptation and growth.
And what does this re-alignment entail? First, senior leadership must map business goals to individual goals, providing employees with ample opportunities to build skills and capabilities that will take them wherever they want to go. As Brown and his co-authors say: “Talented workers join companies and stay there because they believe they’ll learn faster and better than they would at other employers.”
In order to keep pace with ever-evolving business and individual priorities, it’s essential to recognize that a one-size-fits-all career path—even for hourly workers—no longer works. Deloitte calls for a new approach to how work gets done and how careers are built, citing mass career customization as the most effective way to develop talent over the long-term. Through a combination of “climbs, lateral moves and planned descents,” organizations can provide a deeply fulfilling and decidedly un-Dilbert work experience.
What is your business’ attitude toward its people? Are they top of mind or an afterthought?
Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.
Illustration by Russell Christian