The Gervais Principle

Office culture is best understood through the lens of popular culture. That’s why Office Space and Dilbert are so popular.

The Office is another one of those seminal “texts”* on office life.

A blogger named Venkatesh Rao has combed through the Office and diluted from it a new “principle” to supersede the Dilbert Principle when it comes to our understanding of office life.

He breaks office employees down into three categories – the sociopath, the clueless, and the loser.

Below is an extended quote from his first post. He followed it up with a second. Check them out.

The Gervais Principle is this:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

The Gervais principle differs from the Peter Principle, which it superficially resembles. The Peter Principle states that all people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. It is based on the assumption that future promotions are based on past performance. The Peter Principle is wrong for the simple reason that executives aren’t that stupid, and because there isn’t that much room in an upward-narrowing pyramid. They know what it takes for a promotion candidate to perform at the “to” level. So if they are promoting people beyond their competence anyway, under conditions of opportunity scarcity, there must be a good reason.

Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in the Peter Principle, proposed the Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the sociopath level.

And in case you are wondering, the unenlightened under-performers get fired.

*Because thanks to my arts degree (or QUT equivalent) I know that everything is a “text”…