Peter and Dilbert – the Triumph of Incompetence

St Stupid's Day Parade by Scott Beale on Flickr

St Stupid’s Day Parade by Scott Beale on Flickr

I mentioned the Peter Principle in a previous post, being the idea that in any organisation, people rise to the level of their own incompetence.

This got me thinking a bit and so I actually looked up the phrase in Wikipedia

It seems that I hadn’t quite grasped the idea. To quote from the Wikipedia entry:

“The principle holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. Peter’s Corollary states that “[i]n time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Contrast this with the Dilbert Principle:

“companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing.”

Or put more succinctly by Dilbert creator Scott Adams:

“I wrote The Dilbert Principle around the concept that in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work. Your heart surgeons and your computer programmers—your smart people—aren’t in management. That principle was literally happening everywhere.”

Peter and Dilbert, while related are in fact two different people.

  • Peter – assumes that employees are competent to start with, and are moved accordingly;
  • Dilbert – is about damage control. Assumes pre-existing state of incompetence and employees are moved accordingly.

The Dilbert Principle in Practice

I’ve actually seen – or rather heard of – the Dilbert Principle in practice.

When I was a litigation lawyer, I had to take witness statements on a case involving the banking world. The witnesses included the various members of a minor investment bank in the City, all of whom had moved on to other pastures. One of the witnesses, a certain George Knightly (not his real name) was telling me about a certain non-executive member of the Board, who we shall call Sir Charles Grandison.

I’d noticed from the various Board Minutes and other papers that Sir Charles was indeed a bigwig, having held a senior position at the World Bank. I assumed that the reason for his presence was to add lustre – rather like having all those ex Ministers on the boards of our famous public companies.

I put this proposition to George, who replied, with a smirk:

GEORGE: “Oh yes, Grandison was there just for his name. Hadn’t a clue about investment banking.”

ME: So what did he actually do in the office?

GEORGE: Nothing.

ME: Nothing?

GEORGE: Nothing. And I mean, literally nothing. He had an office of his own (the rest of us who actually worked were in open plan). We could see him through the glass doors. Just sat there.

ME: Didn’t he have any papers, or anything like that to read?

GEORGE: Oh, maybe one or two. But you see he didn’t have much to do, and all his letters were read by the CEO before being passed on to him – you couldn’t really trust him to do anything on his own. So he just sat there.”

Photo by Jared Bramblett on Flickr

Photo by Jared Bramblett on Flickr

Here’s a further quote from Wikipedia which rings a bell with Sir Charles’ position:

“In his book, The Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter explains “percussive sublimation”, the act of kicking a person upstairs (i.e. promoting him to management) to get him out of the way of productive employees.”

As George Knightly explained, Grandison was in fact physically separated from the working executives – the one who actually made the money – by being isolated in his own office.

Even so, it is amazing how someone who is incompetent can still manage to land a senior position. I wonder what he used to do at the World Bank?

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