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Memes: Do Bad Barrels make Bad Apples?

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When I saw the cartoon above it reminded me of this idea of “Bad Barrels”.  The prevailing idea is that there are bad apples – a few people in an organization that bring disrepute on an organization but that there is essentially nothing wrong with the organization.

The idea about “Bad Barrels” is that there are organizations and organizational cultures that turn good people bad.  (Read about Memes here and below)

Look at the cartoon above.  How much is Wally now an agent (agent in the strong sense) of the corporate culture in which he, Dilbert and the rest of the gang work?  That is, Wally is now perpetuating (spreading, transmitting, enforcing) an idea of a particular work environment.  (Wally becomes a “host” in the meme model)

The question is this.  If Wally were ever promoted to a position of power in an organization would he “right the wrongs” of the organization he works for as depicted in the strip or would he take on these values and treat people in the same way that he is treated by his boss and now hates?

Will “the barrel” (the environment in which Wally works) change Wally into the very evil that he hates?

I know it’s a comic strip.  But, I have seen it for decades in a lot of organizations.  At some point an “agent” (or “host” in the meme model) in the organization says something like, “You don’t know how things work around here“.  Or, “You are naive.  This is how we do things around here“.  Of course those “things” are the evils that you are asked to participate in, contribute to, and pass on to the new people who have yet to be initiated into “the way we do things here” – the “barrel” of the corporate culture and zeitgeist.

An Opportunity to Reveal Character

The really really great thing about all this is that it provides a person to make a choice based on character.  These challenging opportunities provide a very visible (and sometimes very public) proclamation of a person’s character as demonstrated as opposed to what someone says of their values.

Think of people like Sherron Watkins of Enron.  How many people said to her, “Sherron, this is how we do things here.  You are naive.”  To which she essentially said, “No, this is not the way it should be and it will not be.”

The Courage of Character

Think of the thousands,  tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people right now – at this moment – who know certain “evils” that are going on in organizations but say nothing – they lack the character and courage of a Sherron Watkins of Enron or a Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom.  Those folks that “do nothing” become complicit of the “evil” that are the “bad barrels” of organizational life that have infected them and will infect others.

I know that Dilbert, Wally, and the rest of the cast are merely cartoon characters in a Scott Adams comic strip.  But, it does make you wonder if, in real life, if  any of the powerless  fabric cubical-dwellers who work in environments similar to what one sees in the Dilbert strip were ever promoted to management whether they would take on the attributes of their Pointy-haired boss though this idea of “bad barrels”.

Would the real-world Dilbert and real-world Wally, if every promoted to a position of power, perpetuate the evil?  Would they start calling their direct reports “Powerless Peon’s in a box“”, suggest they dig their own shallow grave and beat themselves to death, and in general denigrate and belittle the people around them just like they were treated?  (Read more on how powerless people “get even” here.)

At least I hope real world Dilbert and real world Wally pick up on the idea of bouncing objects off the heads of direct reports.  That’s pretty funny and it depicts a relationship that defies the language of textual description.


Two conclusions come to mind. First, it is the exceedingly patriotic model soldier—not a rebellious dissenter—who is most likely to obey authorities who encourage such evil acts and to get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means. Second, in The Science of Good and Evil (Owl Books, 2004), I argued for a dual dispositional theory of morality—by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act.

Read about some Bad Barrels in Scientific American
Cached Copy –

Watch a TED talk about Memes and how some people become infected

Perhaps a good historical example

Read more about Toxic Corporate Cultures – Lessons from Enron

Written by frrl

April 22, 2011 at 5:52 pm

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