A Cynical Theory of Management: Beware of the dog
The phrase is most often lettered on a sign for strangers to read on approaching a home. The Romans apparently felt that this warning was good enough advice to be included in their mosaic floors: cave canem.
Below is a drawing by a cartoonist named Hugh MacLeod that’s ingenious in both simplicity and cynicism. Drones at the bottom, ruthless manipulators at the top, and a creamy center of folks in between. These are the ones that think they’re going to make it to the top. They won’t, and they’re clueless to that fact.
Venkatesh Rao took this cartoon, combined it with the television show The Office, and created an ingenious and beautifully cynical theory of corporate management that cut to the core with its incisiveness. The Gervais Principle says that the sociopaths that run the organization knowingly over-promote dedicated but relatively inept people into middle management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.
Redefining the Terminology
The sections that describe how these archetypes deal with one another, in particular, are absolute goldmines of strategic understanding of corporations and you should read Venkatesh Rao’s posts and buy the e-book. But ever since I read it I thought. Wait a minute. He’s talking about Game A, Pink Floyd “Animals” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” I dig that.
To be specific, I kept thinking about Losers clueless and sociopaths as Sheep, Dogs and Pigs.” Sheep are line-level employees who find value in life outside of work, mainly because the hope of any meaningful advancement and enjoyment of their profession has been taken from them.
They contribute as little as possible to preserve stability, getting a bad economic deal and recognizing it.
Dogs believe heartily in the meritocratic company (and organizational superiors) as a benevolent steward of their careers. Dogs make their economic deal even worse fooled by a slightly higher salary and meaningless perks like offices and parking spaces — working 50% more your entire career to eventually get paid 15K more per year.
Pigs give up ethical certainty and human connection – and recognize that the only way to win the corporate game is to play by their own rules. In this realization, Pigs play a lonely, sad game to get what they get over-promote people that get on with the program because of strategic necessity rather than any kind of merit.
The summer of 1976 was not a good summer in Britannia. The economy was crumbling beneath the weight of striking trade unions double-digit inflation and unemployment. More than one-hundred-thousand teenagers graduated that year to an idle and aimless life on unemployment.
Amidst this turmoil arose a new order. The punks had arrived. Music was reverting to a primal, three-chord, scream against the establishment. Nick Mason later stated that he welcomed the “Punk Rock insurrection” and viewed it as a welcome return to the underground scene from which Pink Floyd had grown.
The album was fashioned from an assortment of unconnected songs into a concept of the moral decline of humanity, similar to that to the supposedly barbaric nature of animals. “Raving and Drooling” and “You’ve Got to Be Crazy”, two songs which weren’t fully realized conceptually but were previously performed live and considered for Wish You Were Here, were reworked as “Sheep” and “Dogs” to fit the concept of the album, and were separated by another Waters penned track, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”.
The concept of Animals is loosely based on George Orwell’s political story Animal Farm, where the dogs are the arch-defenders of Napoleon and the pigs after Napoleon’s suspicious removal of six puppies from their mother. They reappear chasing Snowball out of the farm forcing him to flee, never to return again.
Many music critics didn’t give a positive review for Animals, in fact, one Rolling Stone writer called the album just a laser show looking for a soundtrack. However, many Pink Floyd fans see Animals as a buried treasure over shadowed by the success of their more commercial classics
“Pigs on the Wing Part 1”
“Pigs on the Wing Part I” begins with a solo acoustic guitar, with an intimate, confessional voice
If you didn’t care what happened to me,
And I didn’t care for you,
We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain,
Occasionally glancing up through the rain,
Wondering which of the buggers to blame
And watching for pigs on the wing.
The narrator breaks down the fourth wall — interacting directly with the listener. It is later revealed, that this narrator is a dissolute “dog.” He is part of Game A, and expected to attempt to climb pyramid by any means necessary.
In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.”
― George Orwell, 1984
Again redefining Venkatesh Rao’s Gervais principle. A Pig with an idea recruits just enough Sheeps to kick off the cycle. As it grows it requires a Dogs layer to turn it into a controlled reaction. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Pigs and Sheeps make their exits, and the Dogs start to dominate. Finally, the brittle architecture collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the Pigs according to meta-firm logic. Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed.
You can read a more detailed description of this in The Mayan Scheme
The music was written in 1974 by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, with lyrics by Waters, and originally titled “You’ve Got to Be Crazy“. Waters modified the lyrics, transposed the key to suit both Gilmour’s and his vocals, and retitled it “Dogs”. The version on Animals is 17 minutes long. The song might have been called “Dogs, Two Different Ones,” because there are apparently two voices present.
This is suggested by the fact that the band’s guitarist, David Gilmore sings the first few sections, and the piece is concluded with Roger Waters delivering the lyrics. Also, two distinct manners of thought become obvious. It begins with an older “dog” — representative of the stereotypical, cut throat “dog”, who attempts to reach the level of “pig” — giving advice to an up and coming “dog.”
A Sheep who can be convinced into bad bargains is set to become one of the Dogs. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged Sheep will do. In the middle they can be used by the Pigs to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs.
The Dogs layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” “Maybe the Dog internalizes artificial consequences and thinks that they’re nature,
but by creating a meta-culture of Darwinism in the economy: one based on job-hopping, mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, cataclysmic reorganizations, outsourcing, unforgiving start-up ecosystems, and brutal corporate raiding.
You’ve gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need./You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you’re on the street,/you gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed./And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,/You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.”
In White Collar: The American Middle Classes, C. Wright Mills argued that advanced capitalism has engendered a society in which The Gemeinschaft, a society of subjective binding, has been replaced by a Gesellschaft, a society of contractual binding. This leaves us in a new normal of alienation from self and other. This incentivizes individuals to treat one another as instruments. In Buberian terms, they engage in I-It relating. By doing so the individual transforms himself into an instrument, ready to be used by the other.
we are in a collective state of “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” This social domicide and de-rooting makes us long for a place to call home and a group of people to call our own.
The younger “dog” who has broken free from the Mayan scheme attempts to illuminate some of the subtleties of that. The fiercely competitive lives of those within the pyramid. Since “everyone’s expendable” nobody can form meaningful relationships with one another.
Since those who must climb the pecking order believe that “everything’s done under the sun,” to suppress his or her “real need,” it leads him or her toward a paranoiac state in which everybody is potentially dangerous and hostile.
Waters suggests the metaphor that the individual living within GAME A society is the dog in relation to his or her master. The bourgeoisie competitor — or “dog” — is “told what to do by the man” and “broken by trained personnel.”
The first two verses detail his predatory nature — outwardly charming and respectable with his “club tie and a firm handshake, a certain look in the eye and an easy smile“, while behind this facade he lies waiting “to pick out the easy meat[…]to strike when the moment is right“ Subsequent verses portray the emptiness catching up to him as he grows older, retiring rich but unloved: “just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.
A dog-eat-dog world presumes one of Darwinian competition. Like the corruption of Darwin ‘s famous phrase, “Survival of the fittest” (subtly but vastly different from “survival of the fit” which is the concept about which he actually wrote).
Cannibalism [among dogs] is unusual, but has been documented in canids and humans.” What may be more to the point is that among their pack, dogs are far more cooperative than competitive. It is we humans who would like to affirm our behavior by making it parallel with that of dogs. After all, we — not dogs — coined this phrase.
The Hero’s Journey by Proxy
The minds of the Dogs turn to contemplation of their idols. Much of the research on pack behavior — and alpha males — has been done on wolves, who are dogs’ immediate ancestors. It is a fundamentally innocent, child-like devotion. Robin Kovary of the American Dog Trainers Network advises, “Hopefully, your dog sees you as his or her pack leader (‘Alpha’).” While some dogs might like to be in charge, what is even more important to them is that someone be in charge.
The programmed organization exists primarily to protect this innocence, for use in sacrificial betrayals, when failures are blamed on their incompetence.
The Icons of the Dogs are idealized organizations and unreconstructed idols. How close an analogy is this to human behavior? In Anglo societies, humans tend to think of themselves as autonomous individuals. Much lip service is paid to the nobility of nonconformity and individual conscience.
But Dogs live by proxy seeking heroes to emulate. Their gods are heroes on their hero with a Thousand faces journey they want to be like, and whose lives and stories they repeat and quote incessantly. So long as Pigs stay sufficiently distant, and hide the stairway to heaven, their status is secure. They are perceived as being too high up to directly compete with. Failures do not tarnish their divine images.
Bite the hand that feeds you
Whether dogs actually experience gratitude or ingratitude based on previous or anticipated actions is open for debate. Equally so would be whether they attack for spite, but moments of Pig betrayal, for the Dogs, are also their rare moments of unscripted autonomy.
But mostly, they do not take advantage of such moments. Instead, they react with either a misguided sense of honor and loyalty, accepting punishment for incompetence, or ineffectually attempt to dodge blame.
If the Pig is lucky, the betrayed Dogs will catch an unmediated glimpse of illegible realities, process the terror, forget revenge, and turn into into an amoral new Pig. A potential ally or competitor, but mostly always welcome. It’s lonely at the top.
In other cases, unable to process the betrayal, the wrath will be directed at an existing group of Sheeps, where it will diffuse harmlessly as general resentment and disappointment. This outcome might lead to the Dogs defecting to Sheepdom themselves, where they turn into less useful, checked-out pawns.
Or a third way Waters suggest that the only means of escaping what he sees as the meaninglessness of human condition is through human affection.”
Water walks into Buber’s view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou. Buber explains that humans are defined by two word pairs: I-It and I-Thou. The “It” of I-It refers to the world of experience and sensation. I-It describes entities as discrete objects drawn from a defined set. By contrast, the word pair I-Thou describes the world of relations.
This is the “I” that does not objectify any “It” but rather acknowledges a living relationship. I-Thou relationships are sustained in the spirit and mind of an “I” for however long the feeling or idea of relationship is the dominant mode of perception. A person sitting next to a complete stranger on a park bench may enter into an “I-Thou” relationship with the stranger merely by beginning to think positively about people in general
The fact that the narrator “only occasionally glances up through the rain” suggests that he is peculiarly disinterested in taking part in the societal hierarchy. He is decidedly disinterested in the I-it.
The first dog is now double-tracked lead vocal entry. He describes the the second dog’s eventual, increasing paranoia — the final consequence of his past actions” The older “dog” realizes that his past practices have affected his life and future in very real ways.
And when you loose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown.
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone.
And it’s too late to loose the weight you used to need to throw around.
So have a good drown, as you go down, alone.
Dragged down by the stone.
Although he is speaking in the second person, the older, competitive dog is actually speaking to himself, finally realizing how ultra-competition has alienated himself from real human relationships. Next there is a time of reflection, where the younger “dog” — the one who spoke in “Pigs on the Wing Part I” — thinks about the contradictory advice he has been given.
I gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused.
Sometimes it seems to me as if I’m just being used.
Gotta stay awake, gotta try and shake off this creeping malaise.
If I don’t stand my own ground,
How can I find my own way out of this maze?
Deaf, dumb and blind you just keep on pretending
That everyone’s expendable and no one has a real friend.
And it seems to you the thing to do would be to isolate the winner.
And everything’s done under the sun,
And you believe at heart, everyone’s a killer.
Chase your own tail
Is it not the cyclic nature of existence very much like chasing our tails? And while we may seek to grow in wisdom, perhaps the knowledge that can be uncovered in this existence is actually very limited. Oftentimes, dogs will chase their tails because they are a bit bored; it’s a way for them to have fun and expend some energy. This is especially true for puppies, who may not even realize that their tail is actually a part of their body, but see it as a toy.
As a metaphor, to chase one’s tail is to travel in circles, to follow one’s self instead of the thing being tracked, as when Pooh and Piglet track themselves in the snow, thinking they are following a Woozle. It can speak of futility or a failure to see crucial evidence. When employed thoughtfully, it suggests that the one doing the chasing cannot distinguish self from others, and is unaware that the very action that is of interest is his own doing.
Sometimes the metaphor is used to convey the Sisyphean nature of a pursuit in which steps forward take you no closer to your destination. It is pathological when the behavior becomes so obsessive that a dog injures itself or is too distracted to live a functional life. It’s likely that there is something about a dog’s perceptual system that finds the movement of its own tail to be a trigger for response. Shadows or flies can trigger comparable responses.
Such cyclic behavior is not always a source of frustration. Ouroboros, the serpent which eats its own tail, is an ancient symbol in the West, with counterparts in the East and indigenous traditions. It is a reference to the cycles of nature or to infinity.
Reality-Distortion by the Dogs
One of the seemingly endearing traits of dogs is the need for attention.
The world is a dangerous place. Infants early environment is an abnormally nurturing one. So the first early, theories of the world children are tempted to form are based on the assumption that the world exists to provide for them.
I am OK if Mommy applauds my performance
I am OK if I earn badges from teachers
I am OK if I can sit with the cool kids
These twin drives — approval seeking from proxy-family superiors, and admiration-seeking from proxy-family inferiors, mixed with some profound sexual confusion creates a massive library of childlike mappings between situations, canned phrases and reactions. He is not completely responsible for his actions and utterances because he genuinely does not understand them.
Later on, Dogs in normal environments win their first victories through creative performance: reciting nursery rhymes, drawing pictures, and demonstrating creative play behaviors.
If they succeed too much, they get addicted to the typical adult reaction: Wow, aren’t you cute/clever? and, to a lesser extent, to admiration from younger siblings. When he hears somebody talking, all he hears is “blah blah blah good job, blah blah blah, how could you do this ? Their capacity for self-delusion is as big as their lack of originality and they are content with that
Here is why: delusions are closed logical schemes, where reality is mangled into the service of a fixed script through defense mechanisms, with the rest of the meaning thrown away. To manufacture original thought you have to look at/listen to reality in open ways for data.
In the Dog’s world everything worth learning is teachable, and medals, certificates and formal membership in meritocratic institutions is evidence of success.
Lacking the normal encouragement of early-childhood creative-performance instincts finding relief in the graded, performance-oriented worlds of school and varied medieval-guild-like worlds, such as farming, animal husbandry and karate.
visible signs of acceptance aren’t formal medals and honors, but things like being given nicknames by peers, being a wingman to alpha males, being appreciated for “cool” extracurricular skills, and the like.
GAME A NEWSPEAK: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk
The different species in the organization speak different languages.
Powertalk is the in-group language of the Pigs. Posturetalk is the language spoken by the Dogs to everybody (they don’t have an in-group language since they don’t realize they constitute a group). Pigs and Sheeps talk back to the Dogs in a language called Babytalk that seems like Posturetalk to the Dogs.
Sheep speak a language called Gametalk.
Finally, Pigs and Sheeps speak rarely to each other at all. One of the functions of the Dogs, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Pig-Sheep organization. But when they do talk, they actually speak an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk
Gametalk is all about multiple (usually two) levels of communication. What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other.
When the Dogs or Sheeps talk, on the other hand, nothing really changes.
Relative positions remain the same all around. Shifts happen only by accident. Even in the rare cases where exploitable information is exchanged, its value is not recognized or reflected in the exchange.
Posturetalk, Babytalk and Gametalk leave power relations basically unchanged. Posturetalk and Babytalk leave things unchanged because they are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Gametalk leaves power relations unchanged because
Its entire purpose is to help Sheeps put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts.
PostureTalk in District, Zone and the APes
One of the ironies of the Gervais Principle is the survivability of the Dogs. The most frustrating people in The Office (Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, Andy Bernard) survive and thrive while more developed characters (the team from Stamford) quit or transfer.
The communication within the missionary experience is full of PostureTalk. Remember, PostureTalk does not change power relationships. It is a Dogs imitation of the meaningful PowerTalk spoken by Pigs, but with no table stakes. The primary difference between what Rao describes via the Office, is that the Dogs PostureTalk in a mission has the ability to compel specific real-world behavior, because of the ludicrously overwhelming consequences of deviation. This is where the specific kind of PostureTalk that are trainings at a district, zone and mission level come from.
Remember some of the concepts we’ve already covered.
- Pigs rarely communicate directly with the Sheep, instead depending on a buffering layer of Dogs
- Pigs program organizations to deliver predictable outcomes and to fail in predictable ways.
- Dogs truly believe in the organization and give it loyalty that is not returned by the organization.
Missions are set up (as per ‘The Sociopath’s Choice’) to force naive Dogs and Sheep into a two year mould where they act as Dogs whether they would choose to or not. That is an extraordinarily powerful tool to mould people into sets of habits and behaviors (or to exclude them if they fail with divide & conquer, along with wildly outsized consequences)
District, Zone and Mission training can then be seen (in our conceptual model) as a place of performance. The Dogs portray their Dogs devotion and are judged on their devotion. The Sheep forced into the Dogs mould are judged on their ability to act within that mould. These training-as-performance activities reinforce the moulding of the Loser-Dogs, and allow the truly Dogs to shine, in essence nominating them for the higher positions paid only in the fiat currency of local power.
The final verse explores a number of aspects of business life and how it compares to dogs, for example taking chances and being “trained not to spit in the fan“, losing their individuality (“broken by trained personnel“), obeying their superiors (“fitted with collar and chain“), being rewarded for good behaviour (“given a pat on the back“), working harder than the other workers (“breaking away from the pack“) and getting to know everyone but spending less time with family (“only a stranger at home“).
Every line of this verse begins with the words “Who was“, which prompted comparison to Allen Ginsberg‘s infamous poem “Howl“. Instead, these lines can be seen as subordinate clauses to the lyric line that precedes them (“And you believe at heart everyone’s a killer/Who was born in a house full of pain/Who was [etc.]”)
Then a rifling of suggestive lyrics conclude the piece:
Who was born in a house full of pain.
Who was trained not to spit in the fan.
Who was told what to do by the man.
Who was broken by trained personnel.
Who was fitted with collar and chain.
Who was given a pat on the back.
Who was breaking away from the pack.
Who was only a stranger at home.
Who was ground down in the end.
Who was found dead on the phone.
Who was dragged down by the stone.
Dogs are victims of Random success. Remember, they are promoted primarily as passive pawns to either allow the Pigs to escape the risks of their actions, or to make way for the Pigs to move up faster. They are presented with an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance: being nominally given greater power, but in reality being safely shunted away from the pathways of power.
The Dogs are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Pigs and Sheeps), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that GAME A is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm — the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Pigs and Sheeps have left
They must choose to either construct false narratives or decline apparent opportunities. The Dogs resolve this dissonance by choosing to believe in the reality of the organization. Not everybody is capable of this level of suspension of disbelief.
Die like a dog
Perhaps it is ironic that one of the tricks that humans teach dogs to play is dead. The reason that it is relatively easy to get dogs to do this is that the gesture is one a dog would use among its superiors to signal submission. Indeed, this is the way a dog would plead for mercy. It may be that the reason dying like a dog is shameful is because, when threatened in such a way, a dog will beg for its life. For a human to do so can be considered cowardly. To die “like a man” is to be stoic, not pleading.
According to mafia boss Sammy Gravano, when his comrade John Paruta was dying of cancer he begged Gravano to kill him. “Don’t let me die like a dog.” Gravano goes on to say, “He tried to get me to understand that a swift bullet was the best gift a true friend could give him. He couldn’t stand the pain no more.” Clearly, Paruta feared reaching the point of groveling and whimpering like a dog.
The man in question died alone, a nobody, like a pig as well as like a dog.
Nietzsche no doubt plays off of this idea in Thus Spake Zarathustra, when our hero takes up with a tightrope walker. Having introduced the acrobat as superhuman, Zarathustra creates the opposite image when the performer falls to his death. The crowd describes him as a “dead dog.” It is a crucial moment for the narrator, who sees that however daring the human, society offers no middle ground for failure. Zarathustra promised them a superhuman and a life surpassing anything that humans had lived heretofore, but what people actually get, from their perspective is a terrifying letdown in the form of a less-than-human, a dog and a dead dog at that.