Cutbacks For The Queasy
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, Dell is promising a stable growth picture, unemployment is up a little, just the way the Street likes it. There is, of course, no recession. But still there is...the fear. And it is the fear and not the reality with which we all must deal for the next few quarters. So. Let's deal.

Middle management sleeps with the fear, tossing it over in its soft, churning mind, munching on it in the early morning, turning it into a pulp in the back of its throat like a cud of masticated hay, upchucking it again and again for further review during the long hours of the evening after the first cocktail has flowed down the hatch. But left to its devices, middle management will do nothing about the fear. It has seen the fear before and knows that too much action will do nothing but create new fear later on. Middle management knows: This too shall pass, if we but let it.

Senior management, on the other hand, knows no such rule, because it is not required to live with the consequences of action, merely to visit those consequences on others. Of course senior management worries, for that is pretty much its only job, but in its concern it tends not toward stoicism or patience. It tends toward action. When it lays its sleek head on its satin pillow at night, it must tell itself "I did something" if it is to have any hope of knitting up the raveled sleeve, if only for the two or three hours it allows itself. "I did something to stop the fear," it must tell itself. And so it shifts the requirement for action to middle management, passing the fear off itself and rolling it like a gigantic stone downhill upon the peasants beneath.

Now, the executive demand for action that becomes the requirement of middle management manifests itself not in a broad range of considered moves, but as one thing only: the demand to kill. The fear has come! We must feed it! And not just plants and birds and lower mammals, oh, no. People must be thrown onto the fire if the fear is to be driven away--that is the hard nugget that underlies all executive thought in such times as these. Only in this way can the busy, busy senior executive put his noggin once again upon his crispy pillow at night and say to his many selves, "Today I did good. The fear was fed the hard way, with human life. Perhaps tomorrow it will go away."

Middle management, naturally, must respond to the prevailing demands, and quickly too. But it knows that one day soon the fear will be gone and then, whoops, all that was killed will be sorely missed.

Following, then, are some suggestions for things that can be done by middle managers seeking the appearance of responsiveness to the demands of their executives.

First, I would suggest cutting the fruit. This has already been done at parts of Time Warner and several other corporations in which I have friends. One day there was fruit on display for all to see and enjoy. The next day there was no fruit for anybody unwilling to buy some. This is as it should be. Senior officers beset by the realities of the marketplace wander by a work area and see fruit, and they think to themselves, "What the hell? Fruit?" People can live without fruit. Also, individuals who crave fruit can get their own. No fruit means something is being done, and that's good.

Next, it is possible to eliminate free beverages that have previously been supplied to the masses. Our Constitution provides many rights, but the right to free beverages is not one of them. There's a huge upside to this move. The average employee resents the fact that he now has to buy a soda, Snapple, juice, or designer water where before he could simply go to the local refrigerator and snatch one from the bottom shelf. This disgruntled and thirsty group will subsequently walk around the office in intermediate dudgeon and blow off to one and all. "Hey," they will say, "they took away our free soda!" Senior management is sure to hear about this unhappiness, and be pleased by it. "Something substantial is being done!" it will tell itself. And the need to kill people will, for a time, abate.

The usage of all wireless gizmos can then be examined with extreme prejudice. These things are expensive to operate, and their elimination or severe curtailment would do nothing to hurt corporate performance. I saw Barry Diller walking down Sixth Avenue the other day screaming into one of those little mouthpieces on the end of a wire, his free hand holding the tiny button in his ear. "No!" he was screaming. "No way!" Are you telling me he couldn't have done the same thing five minutes later from his office? That phone call probably cost his shareholders a couple of bucks. Multiply that by a million or two, and imagine the impact on your business. And does the clerk in the mailroom truly need that $600 Palm?

Also, take a look at subscriptions. Corporate officers love to hear that one edition of the Wall Street Journal is passed around the entire 87th floor, read by successively less important people until it is virtually transparent. "Heh, heh," they will say, rubbing their hands together.

Consultants, obviously, should be excised well before native life forms are contemplated. The good ones will tell you the same thing, right before they pitch themselves for the CEO slot.

And don't forget the use of plastic by anybody less important than you. A lot of little people have discretionary expense accounts. They don't need them as much as you do, and can probably do the company a lot of good just sitting at their desks eating a tuna fish sandwich. Okay, it's not the greatest fate in the world. But it's better than being out on the street.

More painful, finally, is the elimination of boondoggles, retreats, and other motivational business activity. It's amazing how many companies hold a $3 million "We're the Greatest!" meeting in Boca right after they eliminate their entire Internet operation, which cost about a third of that. What are they thinking about? On the other hand, it's possible to go too crazy. The people making the big decisions often need to play golf in order to get the job done right, and that's got to be done in the proper venue. You can't plan a big acquisition on a public course.

Which brings us to our final point. The executive life is not an easy one. It's harder in many ways than that which offers itself to normal people. You've got to be thinking, eating, and drinking pretty much all the time, and you can't do so in an environment that is not conducive to excellence. So don't expect management, either middle or upper, to absorb too much of the personal discomfort. We're talking about fear, ladies and gentlemen, not wholesale panic. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater, particularly if it's very nice bathwater.

In fact, the hell with the baby. Babies are a dime a dozen. Save our bathwater!

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at