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I Learned Everything About Being A Manager From Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss

February 11, 2014

My career goal is to become the Pointy-Haired Boss from Dilbert.

I was in a job interview a couple weeks ago for a Project Manager job. I had a very good relationship with the hiring manager. We had covered the normal interview topics and had a few minutes before the next interviewer was going to come escort me to another conference room.

I’ve had a tough time finding people with the right balance of technical skills and manager experience.

I can see where that would be a tough role to fill. People tend to gravitate to one or the other.

Yeah. One guy I interviewed said his career goal was to become the PHB from Dilbert. And he was serious.

I use the Pointy-Haired Boss (PHB) a lot when I manage a team. He works well because he is such a caricature of the Boss From Hell. But, even then, he’s mostly harmless. That makes him useful as an absurd example of my own motivation.

I was leading a team of highly technical engineers at a large nonprofit corporation. At one point in my past I had been an engineer. I knew the concepts of what they were doing although the technical details of the newest system were lost on me at that point. In discussions with engineers it would have been fairly easy for me to assert my technical skills.

But, I had great engineers and I didn’t want them thinking that I was somehow second guessing them. In that case, it was easier to overtly adopt the persona of the PHB.

One of my favorite Dilbert strips had the PHB asking Dilbert to build him a new database. Dilbert asks,

What color do you want that database?

I think mauve has the most RAM.

So, when I had enough technical information to make a recommendation to management or make a buying decision, or simply to be assured the engineer had the right answer I would drop a “I think mauve has the most RAM” sentence. It meant that “I’m not going to try to second guess your technical decisions.”

I also regularly claimed that during my reviews with upper management “I’m going to take all the credit for your work anyway.”

In reality the team understood I was Telling Them It Was All About Me and Making It All About Them. The team and I understood that PHB references were designed to reinforce the confidence that I had in them as engineers. In return, they trusted that if I understood my role enough and most importantly, I was comfortable enough to joke about being a really bad boss, I was probably a pretty reasonable boss.

I’m not sure that’s what the earlier interview candidate had in mind.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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