Fear and Loathing at the Office

Business Week’s cover story (Jan. 22, 2007 issue) is called “Sweet Revenge: the Power of Retribution, Spite and Loathing in the World of Business.

It’s a fun read, dishing classic stories ranging from how Cornelius Vanderbilt got even (“I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you”), to Katzenberg vs. Eisner (Hollywood dustups are the most entertaining) to Michael Dell vs. Steve Jobs (the jury’s still out on this one, though as of today Jobs has the edge).

There are a few insights: "The simplest way to create a culture is to pick an enemy," says Garnett [CEO of Ingres, and one of many enemies Oracle’s Larry Ellison appears to have crated over the years.] "We have an enemy: It’s Oracle."

And, “Revenge is a response to a perceived injustice or what psychologists call narcissistic injury, known to you and me as a wounded ego. This reaction is often acute in entrepreneurs or members of family businesses, whose sense of self-worth is bound to their businesses.”

But for the most part, this article describes, rather than diagnoses. But that’s not because the topic is without implication.
The incidence of revenge, and its motivational power, stand in contradiction to what business education describes as the way things get done.

College business courses and MBA programs teach rational decision-making; hypotheses and evidence, decision trees, net present value, hurdle and discount rates, the 4Ps. Not much time on dealing with vengeful bosses or peers.

People have strong feelings—revenge, love, lust, justice—which affect not just the workplace, but top-level strategies and the makeup of entire industries. Yet this is not, for the most part, taught.

It’s not taught to chemistry majors either.  Or actuaries.  But we expect it of business—I think of business as practical, applied economics.  Yet increasingly it is the theory that is taught, not the application.  (See also my posting  “Harvard Business School 30 Years Later: Bring Back Joe”).

Teaching theory alone is like learning a language solely through the dictionary.  Should business explain the world, or teach about managing in it?  The former doesn’t guarantee the latter.

I’m for teaching people to change the world, not just understand it. Vengeance 101, anybody?