Don’t Be A Dilbert Business

Tips to help entrepreneurs create a positive workplace culture

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


“Dilbert” has become one of the most popular comic strips in America because so many people can identify with its hilariously exaggerated depiction of the prototypical dysfunctional workplace. The strip is preposterous, of course. No boss is as utterly clueless, mean and self-serving as the unnamed “Pointy-Haired Boss.” No employee could keep his job while being as exclusively devoted to goofing off as Wally. And no company has an evil cat running its HR department (I think).

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Yet the strip would not be successful if it was completely disconnected from reality. There are far too many workplaces where the culture trends uncomfortably close to the “Dilbert” environment.

While the strip depicts a corporate setting, every business has its own workplace culture — for better or for worse. Good workplaces enhance productivity, support staff members, and tend to be home to successful businesses. Bad workplaces breed discontent, high (and expensive) employee turnover, dishonesty and deceit, and ultimately, an increased likelihood of failure. (Plus the occasional comic strip.)

Entrepreneurs set the tone and culture of their businesses from the moment they hire their first employee. It is imperative to be mindful of this not just at the launch of the enterprise, but at every step of the way forward. So here are a few key aspects to keeping your workplace from becoming the next “Dilbert”.

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Accountability in every aspect of operations. This starts with leading by example. The boss has to work as long and as hard as everyone else. Employees who perform well deserve to be rewarded. Employees who underperform or cause problems must be spoken to professionally and respectfully. Their shortcomings should be laid out and discussed, and a mutually agreed-upon corrective course should be set. Employees who still do not measure simply must be let go, or they will become a corrosive influence on the rest of the staff. Playing favorites, not applying accountability fairly and equally throughout the staff, is a recipe for disaster.

Teamwork should be a constant. This goes beyond achieving goals and solving problems together. Employees should feel like they matter, which means supporting their physical, mental, emotional, social and even spiritual well-being. While roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined, opportunities for professional growth should be a constant. Leadership should not only listen, but actively seek employee input. Successes should be shared, failures collectively owned and addressed from a “what can we learn” perspective. Teams of course have leaders, the owner(s) and/or senior management; but if everyone in the workplace feels like they have a stake in the business, that business is much more likely to succeed.

Communication is inherent in both of the above, but still warrants its own focus. While not every company secret, or challenge, or operational detail must be communicated, keeping people in the loop keeps them from speculating about the loop. Communication must be respectful, and as positive as possible. A little humor is a good thing, but it absolutely must be appropriate. Language is part of any culture; the language used in the workplace plays a substantial role in creating the culture of that workplace. Understanding the cultural language of employees is equally important for establishing and maintaining good lines of communication.

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Meetings should be focused, productive, conducted within the stated timeframe, and never convened unnecessarily. Active participation from all involved should be encourage. Good meetings are necessary and useful; bad meetings undermine morale and productivity. There’s a reason so many “Dilbert” strips portray meetings.

Laying these things out may seem like displaying a keen grasp of the obvious, but it’s equally obvious that workplace dysfunction is real and all too common. Company leadership must be committed to creating a positive, productive working environment from the beginning, and to monitoring the results constantly. A good workplace does not happen by accident; a bad workplace is an accident — or comic strip — waiting to happen.

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