What to do when you have been ‘dreedled’; Many an executive is given to passing unpleasant or daft orders down the line

March 5, 2014 4:15 pm

What to do when you have been ‘dreedled’

By Michael Skapinker

Many an executive is given to passing unpleasant or daft orders down the line

In any organisation, at some point in your career, you are almost certain to be “dreedled” – told to do something by a superior because the superior prefers not to do it. And they, in turn, will often have been told to do it by their superior, who will have been told to do it by theirs.

I have named the word “dreedle” (if anyone has coined it before, please do let me know) after General Dreedle, a character in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

Dreedle (played in the 1970 film by Orson Welles) has just warned that he will tolerate no moaning, when an officer, realising that the general has disrupted his attempt to synchronise watches before a bombing raid, emits a low groan.

The general, Heller tells us, whirls around “in a murderous rage” and demands to know the name of the moaner. Colonel Cathcart stammers that the man is Major Danby, the group operations officer.

“Take him out and shoot him,” Dreedle orders. “S-sir?” says Cathcart. Dreedle snaps: “I said take him out and shoot him. Can’t you hear?”

Cathcart turns to two lieutenants and orders them to take Danby out and shoot him. When they hesitate, he, too, asks whether they have hearing problems. They look at each other “in stunned and flaccid reluctance, each waiting for the other to initiate the procedure of taking Major Danby outside and shooting him”.

There are many organisational dilemmas in Catch-22, but few, in this novel or in all of literature, are as recognisable as this one.

Have you been lumbered with a request from the chairman – transmitted via the chief executive to the head of human resources to your department boss to you – to find an internship for a customer’s niece, in contravention of all the corporate rules? You have been dreedled.

Has the board’s enthusiasm for a half-understood and technically implausible new product idea been passed to the chief operating officer to the head of your subsidiary to your office manager to you? You have been dreedled.

What should you do? There are four ways to handle being dreedled, none entirely satisfactory.

First, you can dreedle someone else. This depends on your having underlings, which you may not have. You could be the last stop on the dreedle line. In any case, dreedling someone else leaves you feeling guilty and morally diminished.

Second, you can just do whatever is being asked for. This will leave you feeling virtuous and superior, which, in this case, you are. But there are problems. The request is almost certain to be difficult or unpleasant, or both. If it were easy, one of the more senior people would have done it.

Also, rather than being grateful, your superiors will secretly resent you for showing them up and will claim credit for the good deed themselves.

Third, you can point out why the request is impossible, illegal or immoral. This is a brave, and possibly career-ending, option. The only people who can do it successfully are those have a special relationship with the original issuer of the instruction.

In Catch-22, it is Colonel Moodus, Dreedle’s detested son-in-law, who whispers, red-faced, into the general’s ear. “You mean I can’t shoot anyone I want to?” Dreedle says with amazement, adding “Is that a fact?” – his rage “tamed by curiosity”. He opts instead to have Danby thrown out of the building.

This is where the novel departs from organisational life. If there are people who can intercede at the top – perhaps because they were at school with the boss, joined the organisation at the same time and are about to retire – you are unlikely to be able to reach them or to come up with any reason why they should listen to someone as low down in the hierarchy as you.

As for approaching those who dreedled you: they didn’t get where they are by saying “it can’t be done”, particularly when they can order someone else to do it.

There is a fourth option: just ignore the request. If the person immediately above you asks how it is going, you can say that it is very complicated (“as you know,” you can add meaningfully) and requires further research.

They may, because they are being pressurised from above, lose patience and become threatening, but it is remarkable how many ideas that were once thought essential and urgent are, with time, simply forgotten. It is worth a try.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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