The Dilbert Principle

A look into why management is the way it is

For years there was this thing called the Perter principle that held true in corporations across the world. The Peter principle basically stated that as an employee stays working for the same company over time they will climb the corporate ladder until they either leave the company or they come to rest at the position on the corporate ladder where the employee is outputting their full potential and where the employee would lack the skill to perform the tasks corresponding to the next highest promotion. The Peter principle was great because it meant that when you are hired at a company you know that your superiors know how to do your job and they should understand what you need to best accomplish your job and will seek to provide you with those things. Everyone should want this type of boss, but not very many people have this type of boss these days.

Now while the Peter principle was great for workers companies began to realize that the Peter principle was not as great for business for reasons that I may or may not discuss later. Around the 80s or 90s the thing which Scott Adams called "The Dilbert Principle" became the norm in many corporations. "The basic concept of the Dilbert Principle is that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management." [1]

The Explanation

Now if this is your first time hearing of this idea you may be confused as to why any company would want to have their least effective workers in management positions, but let me assure you that this makes perfect sense. Let's say you're the head of some software engineering company and you have a team consisting of one programmer with 20 years experience who is a complete expert, a few other guys who you've had for a few years that are also quite good at what they do, a handful of promising new hires and a guy you've had for five years or so who has failed to prove himself as to be very proficient at programming. Now of these people who do you want doing the least programming? Obviously the guy who isn't very good at it. So how do you make sure that that guy does the leas programming? You make him manager.

Why not the best guy?

Probably the first question you should be asking if you don't understand the genius behind this course of action is "Why wouldn't you want the guy with the most experience and skill to be manager?" The answer is really quite simple, if you take your best programmer and put him in management you then loose your best programmer because they will have to spend all of their time doing manager stuff rather than programming, you obviously should want your best programmer to be doing the most programming, making him manager would be the wrong move. There is also another problem with this, imagine if the owner of the Lakers one day went in and said, "Okay LeBron James is our best player, so I've decided to make him coach." Not only is taking LeBron of the court a terrible idea because they'd loose their best player but LeBron's great basketball playing skills likely won't translate to great coaching skills. This is where the Peter principle fails, good workers are not always good managers.

Why the worst guy?

Once you understand why you don't want your best programmer to be manager the next thing a critical thinker should ask would be, "If the best programmer probably won't be a good manager then wouldn't the worst programmer also not be a good manager?" The answer to that question is yeah he probably wouldn't be a good manager either, but that doesn't matter, as long as you've hired a good team of programmers then they will succeed in producing good work no matter what the manager does. If you've read my article criticizing high schools then this concept should be familiar to you. A good team of workers is destined for success, it is very hard for a manager to mess this up, they will be successful regardless of what the manager does.

The Problem

The problem with the Dilbert principle is that it means that managers don't really need to do anything to ensure that their team succeeds, really in a lot of cases the best thing they should be doing is getting out of their workers' way but if he did that then there would be no way to attribute the team's inevitable success to himself, so he has to do something that makes it look like the success happened due to his leadership. This is where the Dilbert comic strip comes into play. When Scott Adams began writing Dilbert comics the idea of the Dilbert principle hadn't crossed his mind, he was just writing comics based off of the absurdities he had witnessed during his seventeen years in a cubicle. It was really after Dilbert became popular and when a lot of the ridiculous management practices he was making fun of stopped that Scott Adams realized what he had stumbled upon. Requiring your waitress to wear 16 pieces of flair on her uniform doesn't really do much to make your restaurant any better it only makes her hate her job, updating the format of your company's TPS reports also doesn't do much, but when Peter forgets to switch to the new format it is a dehumanizing waste of time to send nine people to remind him to fix it when he should only need told once.

Luckily a lot of these dumb practices died when Dilbert was popular, but if you read my last post you'll see that similar ones are very much alive in places like schools where kid's can't simply quit if they don't like it. And unfortunately some new dumb practices are beginning to emerge. Open offices were a terrible idea but they were becoming increasingly common up until the world shut down, back then it was also common to see posts from startup companies on Linkedin showing off the great "team building exercises" they did where they took everyone away from their actual work for a day and had them build towers out of marshmallows and dried spaghetti, these things are a wast of time. Good employees will do good work regardless of management, but if management does nothing they prove their uselessness.

Unfortunately I don't see this problem going away anytime soon but I thought it would be a good idea to make everyone aware of this problem so that they can avoid it when they can.

[1] S. Adams, The Dilbert principle: a cubicle's-eye view of bosses, meetings, management fads &; other workplace afflictions. New York, N.Y: HarperBusiness, 1996.