Company management is sometimes a little odd. You might be able to live with this, you might even be able to work for them, but sometimes they make up rules that are even quirkier. They enforce them, too. A Washington consumer services organization, for instance, forbids its employes to eat or drink at their desks -- even coffee, that steaming elixir of so many offices.
"It used to infuriate me," recalls a former employe. "Neatness counted for more than productivity." He would occasionally smuggle a cup of the brew from the cafeteria by using the freight elevator, praying he wouldn't encounter either a corporate officer or a stickler for the rules.
"You were only officially allowed to drink it if you had a meeting in which outsiders were present," he says. "Secretaries would spend elaborate amounts of time ordering coffee and scheduling the meetings. If the meeting was going to last all day, you could get 'morning coffee' and 'afternoon coffee.' It got really comical."
The firm, he says, had other regulations that might seem just a tad obsessive. Since the purchasing department was convinced it ran the whole place, many of these involved paperwork. A mild example:
"You had to fill out slips just to mail a letter. You would give the envelopes to your secretary, and then she would bundle them up, charge it to your department and say what kind of correspondence it was. Everything that went out had to have a form, whether it was a bundle or just one piece." The net effect: "A lot of people running around wasting time on clean carpets."
Ever gaze around your office and conclude you're working for kooks? Rather spend the day in traffic court than at your desk? Does an encounter with the big boss give you the overwhelming desire to either scream or whimper, whichever comes more naturally?
Sure, any work place dissatisfaction could be your fault, but there are two vastly more attractive options: your boss could be a ding-a-ling, or the whole company could be neurotic. This last theory has the additional virtue of being all-embracing. And, according to two professors of management policy, it might very well be true.
When Manfred Kets de Vries and Danny Miller first developed the notion of the neurotic corporation several years ago, it was admittedly speculative -- a playful idea that many people might implicitly agree with. In essence, the theory holds that, much as President Reagan sets the tone for his administration, the government and the country, the person in control of an organization has a considerable effect on both its structure and strategies -- including the goals, focus and any marketing and manufacturing processes.
If this top guy (and most firms, of course, are run by men) is irrational or pathological, so -- to a greater or lesser extent -- is the company. The exact neurotic categories used by Miller and de Vries are dramatic, schizoid, paranoid, compulsive and depressive. Too great a slice of any and the result, as employes will tell you, could be a very unhealthy working environment.
"You know how you go to the opera with an obsessive friend, and in the first act he's thinking about how he's going to get to his car in time to avoid the rush?" explains Miller, a Canadian who teaches at both the University of Montreal and McGill University.
Similarly, "we've all worked in organizations where you see the influence of the personality of the leader, and the way it impacts with your own personality. You might find a boss who has an obsessive bent, and then you'll see the obsession in everything he does. If he's compulsively neat, he might insist on punctuality -- or go after efficiency above all other considerations."
The Neurotic Organization was published in 1984 to general approval in the academic press. "And then," says Miller, "I wanted to know if it was true. I was skeptical when we started. People told us it was reductionist -- did we really think the guy at the top has so much influence?"
It took about a month for de Vries -- who teaches at INSEAD, the European Business Institute in Paris, and is also a psychoanalyst -- and Miller to write the book. For Miller and a few colleagues to test the theory took a bit longer -- nearly three years. It also cost $100,000, paid for by the government of Canada and the province of Quebec.
In examining 97 small and medium-sized Canadian firms, the researchers used a standard set of scales to measure the chief executive officer's intellectual playfulness, curiosity, willingness to explore and experiment, and lack of dogmatism. They used other scales to determine whether the executives felt they were able to influence the future, and to evaluate the extent to which they wanted to improve things and achieve rewards gradually and consistently.
When the research team correlated these characteristics with data about the corporations, they concluded that the executive's personality had a very marked effect on the strategy, structure and decision-making process of the organization. In fact, it was a stronger influence than anything else, including the firm's size, the uncertainty of the business environment, or technological matters. And you thought it was your fault you were miserable.
"The management technique around here is humiliation and outright lies," says an account executive in a D.C. lobbying firm. "Our boss came in on a weekend and rummaged through all of our desks. Apparently, he thought too many people had extra memo pads, because we got a little lecture at a staff meeting -- 'Some people appear to be hoarding things.' It was paranoia -- the employes were actually using the supplies!
"With entrepreneurs, the nuttiness is directly attributable to the people at the top. 'Family' is often mentioned. They tell us here what is good for us -- little tips about how you should dress, act in meetings. In fact, they treat you like children. If you ask for a modest raise, it's like you're getting greedy for too big an allowance. Meanwhile, they're the most childlike, unbusinesslike of all. They have very bad tempers -- they go off the handle about once a day. And believe me, the product suffers because of all this."
For decades, the FBI was dominated by J. Edgar Hoover. Under de Vries and Miller's definition, it was a paranoid organization, stuffed with superstition and ritual.
There's a story about the place that perfectly illustrates the point. In 1959, Hoover's chauffeur-driven car got in a small accident while making a left-hand turn. The director seems to have been a little shaken. So he "had forbidden all left turns on auto trips," ex-FBI agent Joseph Schott wrote in his book No Left Turns. If Hoover wanted to go left, he presumably went right, then right again, and then right a third time -- whereupon he could finally go straight.
According to a former FBI official, coffee-drinking was forbidden here, too -- not only because of the potential for mess, but because it indicated "you weren't doing your job."
"How obsessive can you get?" comments Miller. "It's your obsessions dictating to the nth degree what your employes can do." And the effect, as with the consumer company's rule about coffee, is that "people look at this and say, 'How can I feel any respect if you implement these kinds of idiotic decisions?' You feel mad at yourself for adhering to it, and then you get mad at the company."
More generally, Miller found in his research with the 97 companies that chief executives who had been in their posts a long time had more influential personalities. (Hoover would be another example of this.) Similarly, the smaller and newer the company, the greater the effect the boss had. But the evidence also seemed to indicate that the neuroses of the top people -- whether dramatic, schizoid, paranoid, compulsive or depressive -- could be a major factor in all sizes and types of firms.
"While most businesses have some pathology, it's generally pretty benign. When there's a mixture of styles, one counterbalances the other. It's where one dominates that it could become harmful to the company," says Miller.
"For example, you could have a marketing department that has a dramatic flair, and simultaneously an engineering department that is obsessional about quality. That would be a nice match. But if quality were all that mattered, and they neglected what customers wanted, then they would be selling the wrong product. The market wouldn't be interested, and they'd fall behind."
Sometimes a neurotic corporation can be quite functional. Yet if matters change, it can quickly become dysfunctional. The entrepreneur, for instance, is a dramatic leader. He takes risks, shows initiative, and reads markets well -- qualities that are useful when the company is first formed.
"He's used to running a one-man show, but when the organization gets large and his administrative tasks become complex," says Miller, "he'll be overexpanding and overburdening himself with details."
"He was an extremely passive/aggressive kind of guy," says a former employe at a small chemical company in Maryland when asked to describe his ex-boss. "He wanted to maintain complete control of everything that went out of the plant, but at the same time, he wanted people he brought in to take over maximum responsibility." And always, this chief executive seemed depressed -- as if a "gray cloud were raining over him."
This boss "thought he was fair, on an even keel, a good teacher -- thought he was everything that you read in management books that good managers should be. But clearly he wasn't. You can't operate when the top guy wants to make all the decisions and then won't."
Inevitably, the workers suffered. "There's no reason to do a good job if it wasn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference in their paychecks. He held on so tightly, there was no way for anyone to buy into his dream, his vision. It was just work. Go home and forget about it."
Employes and management have been dueling forever, and it's a battle unlikely to be resolved soon. Even if you accept the neurotic theory, there's little the average worker can do. Too much depends on matters beyond his control; too little depends on rational argument. Recommending the boss visit a psychiatrist is not considered a sure way to promotion.
"On the other hand, there's a practical implication," Miller says. "If you've got a certain type of business, you should be looking for certain types of top management. A person matters not just because of their knowledge, but also because of their personality -- the total mass." Still, he adds, "it's not like the low-ranking employe could do much. But I'm not sure they ever could."
The neurotic theory is now being refined for publication in a more popularized form next winter as Unstable at the Top. This new version will also name names, giving specific examples of companies that fall into the various categories. At least it will if it passes muster with the publisher's legal department. An earlier prospective publisher went as far as to list Unstable at the Top in its catalogue, but eventually, Miller says, "chickened out."
"At my most recent job, you always knew a menacing superior force -- the head of the company -- was out to get you. She signed your paycheck, and you were her creature. One time she rearranged the furniture in my office because she thought it would be better for me if the bookcase were away from the door," says an ex-employe at a local ad agency.
"There was very poor internal communication. That made it a paranoid place to work, because people did not know what was happening. And this was directly attributable to the nature of the principals."
In spite of the misery and emotional stress -- the woman estimates 50 percent of the staff left within nine months of her own departure -- "we did good work. The liabilities for the company were not product-oriented; they were staff-oriented. They were wasting their people, but continued in business. I never understood that part."
According to the neurotic theory, that won't necessarily continue to be true. Eventually, all the talented employes may end up working elsewhere -- driven away by nutty behavior.
Nevertheless, this particular employe had no desire to find out. "I'm now self-employed. Even if I hate my boss, I can't get rid of him."