What could be worse than losing a job? In some circumstances, keeping it. What kinds of circumstances? That’s a question worth answering, because the job you are offering or being offered may, in fact, be a nightmare waiting to engulf the unwary.

The most interesting answers to this question, strangely enough, are probably not vivid, detailed very specific horror-movie scenarios, but more abstract characterizations that provide a “nightmare template” applicable to jobs in a general, yet insightful way—the way laws of physics, systems and engineering apply to every specific, concrete project.

Worst Nightmare Framework vs. Worst Nightmare Details: A Top-Down/Bottom-Up Model

This difference between nightmare framework and nightmare details in connection with what might be called “workplace nightmare management and prevention” is as important as and is analogous to the difference between “top-down” and “bottom-up” systems management and scientific method.

Some workplace problems, including worst nightmare problems, are best approached, for the purpose of improved systems design and flow, from the organizational or conceptual top, e.g., is falling sales a management problem or a rank-and-file employee problem? If the former, is it a management information, procedures, attitude, etc., problem or something else?

If it’s an attitude problem, is it task-attitude, interpersonal-attitude, etc., problem or some other issue? That’s a top-down “binary search” tree-diagram approach, probably a good one in the cases in which a “wrong turn” or design flaw in the top-down flow or systems tree or flowchart architecture is responsible for creating the problem.

On the other hand, in other circumstances, a bottom-up approach may be more effective: Some employees are disgruntled because the cafeteria hours have been curtailed, reduced by two hours—opening one hour later and closing one hour earlier. That’s very specific and detailed. Attempting to solve that problem by reinstating or negotiating the hours is to tackle it on its face, so to speak.

In this approach, the focus of attention is the point where its impact is felt, namely, at the bottom, on the shop floor, rather than somewhere else, perhaps higher up in the system or at a higher level of abstraction, in the chain of factors or organizational structure/performance that led to the management decision-employee response conflict about the hours.

Physics and Worst Nightmares

This distinction is almost identical to that between top-down “deductive” science that focuses on working with universal, known laws of nature to predict, explain and control specific phenomena and bottom-up “inductive” science that focuses on investigating details, including data collection, specimen classification and experiments that, in turn, lead to conjectures as to what those universal, very general laws (of nature, including the nature of worst nightmares) may be.

As this example suggests, effective workplace problem management can combine both approaches, e.g., by exploring, top-down, organizational constraints, designs, flow or forces that led to the decision to curtail the hours; investigating bottom-up factors that motivated the employee objections and, finally, exploring what has to be done at what level and in which direction (top-bottom, bottom-top) to resolve the problem.

The same goes for workplace nightmare management and prevention. The top-down approach is more abstract and compact (like a short list of the laws of physics) than the infinite bottom-up specific scenarios that exemplify them (in physics, a falling ball, a falling spoon, a falling rain drop, etc., which all obey laws of gravity, friction and resistance). Hence (like the universal laws of physics), the abstract formulation of workplace nightmares can be used to predict, prevent and control specific nightmares.

A Workplace Worst-Nightmare List

So, what’s the list of universal “laws” of worst-nightmare scenarios? Here are but a few:

1.  Practical Necessity-Impossibility Conflict: Perhaps the most familiar example of this is the “responsibility-without-authority” bind, in which an employee is held responsible for results but denied the authority to access resources—including information and other powers and privileges, etc., required to get the job done, done on time and done right.

This is a pragmatic or “practical”—in the sense of “pertaining to practice”—“necessity-impossibility” conflict because the necessity of the job (responsibility) collides, in practice, with the impossibility of achieving it (lack of authority, which theoretically could have been granted). It must be noted that this is not the same as the following nightmare: pure logical contradictions.

Another specific example of this practical necessity-impossibility conflict is a workload that cannot possibly be managed in the time allotted by nature, e.g., a seasonal harvest—a case of imposed responsibility, but with the lack of or possession of authority having no bearing whatsoever.  Again, this is a situational rather than logical conflict, since theoretically the crops could take longer to become harvest-ready.

This is also an example of a “load-latitude” nightmare, in which one’s workload is not adequately matched by sufficient latitude to manage it, where “latitude” is a much broader concept than “authority”—the latter being only one form of latitude, another being non-existent latitude in choosing when to successfully harvest the wheat.

The beauty of this kind of abstract characterization of the worst nightmare is that it inspires us to look beyond single scenarios, such as the “responsibility-without-authority” nightmare. We can investigate other instances, including “load-without-latitude”, in which the dynamic, the emotional impact and the solutions are similar in many ways to that familiar nightmare, yet, because of different “boundary conditions”, distinct in ways that require distinct controls and predictions, much as falling bombs and parachutes do when being designed, tested and deployed.

2.  Logical Contradictions: His supervisor tells an employee to undertake task X in the office, right now. But a client is demanding that he come to his office, also right now. The contradiction is “I must do X and not-X (when I cannot do both).” That’s but one concrete illustration of the “law of nightmarish contradiction”, which can be stated as “ If an employee is given contradictory, mutually exclusive tasks, the resulting experience will be a worst nightmare.” This is a logical contradiction to the extent that “I can be in two places at the same time” is a logical, and not merely practical, impossibility, if there is only one two-legged version of me.

Of course, this task-based contradiction is entirely contingent on the contingent mutual exclusivity of the tasks X and Y, which under different circumstances that allowed multitasking, could be performed simultaneously.

The purest form of workplace nightmare contradiction is illustrated by a wacky boss who instructs his secretary to take notes during all office conversations with clients, but to not eavesdrop while doing so. Given that taking notes requires listening, she is being told to listen and to not listen—a logical contradiction.

Serial, time-lag logical contradictions are also possible, e.g., a boss tells his project manager to leave the accounting department out of the project loop, after telling him to get a budget estimate from the same department

3.  Self-nullification: A guard hands a prison inmate a shovel, tells him to dig a hole; then tells him to fill it. When that’s done, he tells him to dig it again, fill it, etc. That’s a labor model of the statement “This statement is false.” If that statement is true, it’s false; if it’s false, it’s true. (Think about it and you’ll see the truth of my statement about that statement.) In shoveling terms, that can be rendered as “If you dig that hole, fill it, and vice versa.”

In corporate environments this kind of “self-nullification” of tasks can be illustrated by the case of a sales team whose best maximum performance is set by management as the new minimum performance—a clear case of nightmarish self-nullifying effort.

What is known as “Catch-22” is another instance of such self-nullification. As you probably know, the name is based on the concept title of the movie “Catch-22”: To escape assignment to dangerous bombing missions and be grounded, an airman must be declared insane; to be declared insane, he must be examined and certified by a physician; to be examined, he must request it; but if he requests it, he clearly is not insane.

4.  Perfectionism: This case of the self-nullifying sales team effort may, in some cases, be analyzed and explained in terms of perfectionism. In theoretical and practical terms, “perfectionism” is a self-contradictory concept, since there can be no proof that further improvement of anything is impossible.

Hence, like some imaginable doctrine of “numberism”, defined as the search for the biggest number, by definition the goal set by perfectionism is unattainable. The sales team manager who recalibrates maximum performance as a new minimum may be acting from such self-defeating (and team-demoralizing) perfectionism.

Another concrete example is the case of a boss who tosses every draft of a letter his secretary presents him. A third is the company director who rejects every business plan prepared by his staff—often not because the staff rendering of his mission and plan is imperfect, but because he decides he imperfectly formulated his mission and proposed execution, which therefore need to be revised.

5.  The “Tubble”:  Imagine laying down a roll of self-adhesive contact vinyl on a table top and getting the inevitable bubble. That’s what I call a “tubble”—a bubble of trouble on a table. You press the bubble to eliminate it, but it pops up somewhere else. Press there, and it pops up in another spot.

The same thing can happen at work: There’s a shortage of computers, so staff are asked to share those available. That problem is solved. But now a new problem is created: scheduling and assigning non-conflicting times. That problem is also solved. But next, bottlenecks are created as off-line time creates staff online-work backlogs—and so on, endlessly, in the worst-case worst nightmare tubble-scenario.

It Could Be Worse

Just as the list of laws of physics can never be proven to be complete, my list of workplace worst nightmares and their abstract characterizations is, of logical necessity, but a sampling of the known and unknown possibilities. Still, despite this inescapable incompleteness, my task could have been worse—and another nightmare.

The job of writing this might have been a really bad skills-challenge match, i.e., way too much for me.

Hmmm….that’s worst-nightmare scenario #6: “Horrible Skills-Challenge Match”.

One less…or is it one more?…to wonder or worry about.



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in Organizational Behavior]