A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 1st, 2012 by William

A Plumbing We Will Go

As a kid (and even into adulthood, I’ll admit) I loved The Three Stooges. Part of the allure of the Stooges is their behavior; the slapping, hitting, and poking which are quite satisfying to watch because everyone fanaticizes doing this to a co-worker at one time or the other. What may not be obvious at first is that the Stooges behavior and antics quite nicely parallel the modern day workplace. Little did I know, but in watching the Stooges as a kid, I was getting a glimpse into what work life would be like for me as an adult.

Many of the Stooges predicaments, escapades and behavior mirror the practices and behavior of modern business management. If we view the Stooges as a business organization we can see why. Moe is the CEO and Curly and Larry are his loyal sycophants. Their constant in-fighting is a good metaphor for the interpersonal games, played jockeying for position in the pecking order, that preoccupy modern management teams. As in most management teams, Moe is firmly ensconced in his dubious leadership position and Larry and Curly, with high hopes of reaching that level someday, are left with being treated with condescension and verbal and physical abuse.

Moe, Larry, and Curley can teach us a lot of valuable lessons about how modern management works. In fact, it could serve as a perfect metaphor for the bumbling of many a management team. What kind of lessons? Well, let’s take a close look at a typical episode of The Three Stooges and we’ll quickly find out why…

In one of my favorite episodes, “A Plumbing We Will Go,” the 3 heroes play dubious plumbers and they have been called out to a large mansion to fix a leaky pipe in the basement. However, in the story the Stooges manage to destroy the entire plumbing system in the home in grand fashion. Curly attempts to repair a leak in the upstairs bathroom and ends up constructing a maze of pipes that traps him. Larry digs up the front lawn in search of the water shutoff valve, never finding it. In addition, Moe and Curly end up connecting a water pipe with another nearby pipe housing electrical wires, leading to water exiting every electrical appliance in the mansion.

Our first glimpse into how management works comes right at the beginning of the story when they first arrive at the house. Let’s listen in…

MOE: “Where’s the leak?”

BUTLER: “In the basement.”

LARRY: “Where’s the basement?”

CURLY: “Upstairs!”

MOE: “Up to the basement!”

LARRY and CURLY: “To the basement!”

Once in the basement they find the leaking pipe…

LARRY: “How can ya fix it while it’s leakin’?”

MOE: “I wonder where you shut the water off.”

CURLY: “I got an idea!”

MOE: “What is it?”

CURLY: “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water! That’s it.”

MOE: “That’s what?”

CURLY: “Water always runs downhill.”

MOE: “On your way.”

CURLY: “Where?”

MOE: “Up the hill and shut off the water.”

While silly, this exchange does humorously mirror the lack of concrete and focused direction of many management teams and how they don’t have a clue how to deal with the many threats that their business will face. Many businesses have “leaks” in their business plan and daily operations that are never really “plugged up.” Like the Stooges, most management teams really don’t know where they want to go with the business, and with no clear idea of what direction to take, they will often times make incorrect assumptions about their business environment, how to run their company, or even their true core competencies.

Speaking of core competencies…

MOE: “What do you know about plumbin’?”

LARRY: “Nuttin’!”

MOE: “That’s fine, gimme a hand.”

CURLY: “A simple job for simple people!”

This dialog speaks to the lack of true qualifications (competencies) of many management teams. Most top level management teams, and their sycophantic followers, are comprised of people who have risen to the top only based on their sociopathic “talents” and not on proven business skills, and certainly not on proven leadership qualities. Just like with the Stooges leadership becomes nothing more than bullying.

Let’s go back to our heroes… While Curly leaves the basement and goes to an upstairs bathroom, back in the basement Moe and Larry are trying to stop the water leak.

MOE: “Get me a wrench for the pipe.”

Larry hands Moe the wrench and Moe starts tightening the leaky pipe.

MOE: “Give it a tap and get things started.”

Larry taps the pipe very lightly with a hammer.

MOE: “What’s the matter, ‘Muscles,’ ya weak? Hit it!”

Larry reaches the hammer back and swings it forward forcefully, but the back of the hammer pokes a hole through a big pipe behind him, causing smoke to come out the hole.

MOE: “Hey, you smokin’?”

LARRY: “No, but the pipe is!”

This is the perfect metaphor for the sad problem solving capabilities of many management teams, who many times create more problems than they solve, or create new problems as they attempt to solve an unrelated one. And just like with the Stooges, don’t forget; for management every problem is a nail and the solution always requires a hammer.

The scene continues with Moe looking up and jumping in shock when he sees the smoke coming out of the pipe.

MOE: “Why, ya lamebrain! You wanna get us suffocated? Put some tape on it!”

LARRY: “We forgot the tape!”

MOE: “Well, we had to forget somethin’, or we wouldn’t be plumbers! Go on! Find somethin’ to wrap around it!”

Moe and Larry end up wrapping a woman’s girdle around the pipe to stop the smoke from leaking out, providing a perfect metaphor for how many management teams’ Band-Aid, short-term solution, mentality takes over when they face an unexpected problem. Few problems ever receive the time it takes to fix the problem right and once and for all.

MOE: “I wonder why that egghead don’t shut that water off!”

LARRY: “Hey, I saw a guy shut the water off once in the front yard.”

MOE: “When I want your advice, I’ll ask for it! Hey, go out in the front yard and shut the water off!”

This gives us a glimpse into the tendency of management to not accept valid, constructive suggestions from anyone and how, many times, they will in the end adopt the suggestions of others as their own.

Let’s look in on Curly who’s in the bathroom. After interrupting someone taking a shower, he attempts to shut of the water faucet and it breaks off. The water starts flowing out the faucet. Curly’s solution is to screw a pipe to the shower faucet, not noticing yet that the water is coming through the pipe. He discovers this and his solution is to screw a second pipe to the first one. As expected, water comes through this one as well. Needless to say he keeps this up until he’s completely surrounded by pipes, yet still has the water coming out the end. Surrounded by a huge maze of pipes connected to the shower faucet, he notices that there’s no way for him to get out.

Curly’s actions provide us the perfect metaphor again for the Band-Aid mentality to solving problems. To this we add the dimension that, many times, management acts to only kick the can (the problem) down the road, with the laughable intent to solve it at some time in the future. This is why most organizations are rife with recurring problems that never really get solved. Curly also provides us a metaphor for how often the actions of management can trap them into failed strategies. Here the strategy of connecting more pipes reflects the tendency to want to put good money after bad in failed ventures. Attaching pipe, after pipe, hoping the leak will stop represents the trap many organizations have in which they keep doing the same think over again somehow expecting a different result−the true definition of insanity.

As the scene continues, Curly tries to free himself by lifting the maze of pipes up, but fails. He looks down and notices a hand-drill next to him and he begins drilling holes in the floor to let out the water. Unfortunately the water is raining down on Moe in the basement. As expected, Curly comes crashing down through the bathroom floor into the basement and breaks a pipe.

MOE: “Why, you lamebrain, you! Look whatcha did to the pipe! Go on, get another piece of pipe!”

Curly walks over to an electrical junction box and pulls a pipe out from the box.

CURLY: “Hmm! Hey, no wonder the water don’t woik! The pipe is plugged up with wires!”

MOE: “A fine place for wires! Well, drag ’em outta there and get that pipe in here.”

Curly starts pulling the wires from the pipe and ends up with a big pile of wire next to his feet. Finally at the end of the wire, Moe and Curly connect the electrical pipe to the water pipe and the leak stops. However in the kitchen, the chef turns on the light switch and water starts flowing into the bulb. It fills completely with water and then explodes.

This provides another example of how many times management will make knee-jerk actions to attempt to solve problems without really thinking through of the options available and the ramifications of those options. Management’s decisions and actions most always have a profound effect on the rest of an organization.

In another scene Larry is outside the mansion digging a hole in the ground. He’s several feet underground now. The butler runs over to him.

BUTLER: “Stop it! Stop it! You’re ruining the lawn!”

LARRY: “Don’t tell me how to run my business! Beat it!”

BUTLER: “Put that sod back where it belongs!”

Larry throws a big sod piece with the shovel and hits the butler in the face.

This provides a glimpse into management’s inability to take criticism about how they’re running the business. They always know best and make sure anyone who questions them gets the proverbial piece of sod thrown in their face.

In this story, as with all Stooges stories, any and all problems the boys encounter are blamed on Larry and Curly. As CEO, Moe always held them responsible for all screw-ups or bad decisions−even when the decisions were his. This is not unlike real business management where this practice is called “plausible deniability.”

Moe’s comment below says it all about how management perceives their worth to the organization.

MOE: “If it wasn’t for me, where would we be?”

So what are the true management lessons the Three Stooges teach us?

  • Sociopathic Leadership – Moe is clearly the leader and most definitely a sociopathic bully. Moe is overbearing, dictatorial, condescending, and critical of everything that Curly and Larry do, playing the game of “divide and conquer” with them so as to maintain his control. Of course, Moe takes abuse one step further and makes it physical, but remember physical abuse is not completely absent in the modern workplace.
  • Sycophants – Curly and Larry are Moe’s trusted, but inept, sycophants. They will continue to take Moe’s abuse as he assigns them tasks that they are incapable of performing.
  • Lack of Teamwork – Each Stooge has his own role but they are not all working as a team and their actions typically only make whatever situation they’re in worse.
  • Lack of Planning – Their plans are created on the fly in reaction to events versus a clear thought out strategic plan. Like the Stooges, most management teams spend their time reacting to problems rather than planning to avoid them.
  • Problem Solving – Every time they are faced with a problem they will put a Band-Aid solution in place without looking for a long term solution. In business this manifests itself in the mentality that dictates that short-term profits are preferred over making investments that benefit the long-term.
  • Blamestorming – With every misstep the Stooges make Moe never takes responsibility and will always blame either Curly or Larry while doling out the appropriate verbal denigration, slap, poke or punch as punishment. This perfectly reflects how “plausible deniability” works in modern management.

So the next time you’re watching, what might appear to be, a mindless sitcom take note of how the characters’ idiotic behaviors might just mirror what you’re experiencing at work or have witnessed in your company’s management team. You’d be surprised at how art always gives us a glimpse into reality. Plus recognizing the idiocy in your workplace makes it much easier to understand, cope with, and endure your fate−you’ll actually begin to see the humor in the everyday happenings around you and this will make you happier in your career.


2 Responses to “A Plumbing We Will Go”
  1. Anonymous says

    Fabulous, what a blog it is! This blog provides useful facts to us, keep it up.

  2. Anonymous says

    You are a very bright individual!

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