The Dilbert Syndrome

Ways managers can cure survey cynicism among employees

by Henry J. Lindborg

The Dilbert comic strip is one of the best satires on workplace cynicism. It portrays a white-collar, micromanaged office featuring the engineer Dilbert as the main character. In a recent strip (below), Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss is pictured reporting annual employee satisfaction survey results at a meeting. Then, Dilbert’s boss assures staff that management will never get such a low score again. The final frame of the comic strip shows how: The CEO cancels all future employee satisfaction surveys.

I thought, “That could be a tempting way to handle negative feedback for some managers.” The comic strip targets an important issue and the response it may evoke. In recent years, employee satisfaction surveys for a number of my clients have pointed to a disconnect between top management and staff. Poor leadership scores in employee satisfaction surveys suggests leaders may not have the capacity to drive ongoing and effective strategic change.

The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2012 survey, “Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: How Employees Are Dealing With Uncertainty,” found two of the top five factors influencing job satisfaction were relationships with immediate supervisors and communication between employees and senior management.1 Relationships with immediate supervisors affect an employee’s quality of work life, but communication with senior leadership makes an impact on employees’ contributions to organizational agility.

According to a recent study examining corporate effectiveness, “Agility is not just the ability to change. It is a cultivated capability that enables an organization to respond in a timely, effective and sustainable way when changing circumstances require it.”2 Agility is critical for long-term success and it guides an organization’s identity and strategic intent. It promotes conditions under which “information flows easily, in both directions, between both the bottom and the top of the organization.”3 Agility cannot flourish in an atmosphere of distrust.

Culture of complaint

If unaddressed, distrust of senior management can generate a case of real-world employee cynicism: negative attitudes and disparagement based on the belief that the organization lacks integrity.4 A “culture of complaint” that is resistant to the communication required for strategic change, enterprise risk management, ethics and continual improvement may emerge.5

Employees’ opinions about top management are ever relevant for quality managers. Special challenges may arise when it’s time to partner with human resources and conduct an employee satisfaction survey. When attitudes toward leaders are negative, how should the messengers—the quality managers—avoid the scenario presented in the last frame of the Dilbert cartoon? There are a number of things they can do to best handle these sensitive situations:

  • Pay careful attention to survey design, interpretation and deployment.Nothing is worse than putting out fires caused by design flaws. This may seem obvious, but most of us have defense routines. We try to invalidate bad news, especially with statistical reasoning. The survey has to stand up to scrutiny. Also, we tend to get defensive when we are approached unprepared. Senior managers must be involved at all stages, share their assumptions about the survey’s effectiveness and agree to an improvement plan to address the results.
  • Ensure results are reported by a seasoned consultant, facilitator or coach experienced in working with leadership. Traditionally, survey results are cascaded and presented to leadership first. Beyond respect for the propriety and order demanded by an organization’s hierarchy, this serves a number of purposes. A clear executive summary highlights the results and what they mean. CEOs, who may report to boards and the public, need a clear message to communicate.
  • Set the tone. After executives have reviewed the survey data and have been assured of the survey instrument’s validity and reliability, focus on messaging. A presentation on the findings that is geared toward executives can help establish a communication plan to report results throughout the organization.
  • Enhance trust in the organization, beginning at the top. If senior managers were criticized for their compensation packages—or have recently picked up talk show host and psychologist Phil McGraw’s book on self-protection—Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World—they may be a little cynical themselves.6

Remind executives that responding to an employee satisfaction survey is an act of faith that change is possible. When employees respond to a satisfaction survey, they expect the organization to use that information to make a positive change. If a survey is conducted and nothing changes, the exercise contributes to everyone’s cynicism. Employees want to be heard and to see results. At the same time, they fear participating. If trust is an issue, guarantees of confidentiality and freedom from retaliation are essential. Management should simply acknowledge the present state and provide paths for change.

“Gotchas” and negative comments from staff members who responded to the survey may lead to that final Dilbert frame. Communication is an organizationwide issue and it raises questions about how to learn and improve together. Ironically, surveys also test communication. Discussing issues raised by surveys with workgroups, especially smaller ones, may yield limited results. Patterns of thought and influence may simply reinforce the status quo. Quality managers should consider large-scale conversations with diverse participants.

Quality professionals’ experience with large-scale events and improvement teams offers credible approaches for change. However, those processes, too, have to be carefully designed to avoid the Dilbert trap.


  1. Society for Human Resource Management, “2012 Employee Job Satisfaction And Engagement: How Employees Are Dealing With Uncertainty,” 2012, www.shrm.org/peopleinsight.
  2. Thomas Williams, Christopher G. Worley and Edward E. Lawler III, “The Agility Factor,” Strategy+Business, April 15, 2013, www.strategy-business.com/article/00188?gko=6a0ba.
  3. Ibid.
  4. James W. Dean, Jr., Pamela Brandes and Ravi Dharwadkar, “Organizational Cynicism,” The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 341–352.
  5. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  6. Phil McGraw, Life Code: The New Rules For Winning in the Real World, Bird Street Books., 2012.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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