The Dilbert Principle or Why the Incompetent Are Successful at Work

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Louise Hay

The Dilbert Principle or Why the Incompetent Are Successful at Work

The Dilbert Principle refers to a 90s theory proposed by cartoonist Scott Adams that explains how companies systematically tend to promote and give managerial positions to less capable employees. The reason? Limit their chance of harming the company, as they are the last people to be given "real" assignments.

Last update: May 31, 2020

The Dilbert Principle refers to a 90's worthy theory proposed by cartoonist Scott Adams which explains why companies systematically tend to promote and give managerial positions to less capable employees. This is done to limit their chances of damaging the company, removing them from more practical and concrete assignments and roles.

According to the Dilbert principle, an incompetent software developer would be promoted to allow other developers to work in peace. The promoted developer would spend their time dealing with meetings that are not important to the activity on a practical level, thus leaving the other developers the time and peace of mind to continue carrying out the jobs that bring the real and real benefit to the company.

In a higher hierarchical position it is also much more difficult to be empathetic and participate in everyone's daily problems, while it is easier to identify who is not working correctly. Does this mean that if you are really good at your job, you will have less chance of getting promoted? Would your skills risk being an obstacle to your career?

Dilbert's principle, the birth of the concept

The Dilbert principle has its origins in another concept: that of Peter's incompetence. The latter claims that people who are good at their jobs are promoted until they reach a position for which they are incompetent and in which they get stuck.

The Dilbert Principle goes further by stating that incompetent employees are intentionally promoted to prevent harm in key positions for the company.

How are promotions awarded?

According to the scholar, promotions are given because the higher positions have a much less concrete importance for the purposes of company production. In a "Dilbertian" company, less capable people are systematically assigned to positions where they cannot be dangerous: managerial roles.

Going back to Peter's principle, an incompetent manager was a competent worker in his previous job. In Dilbert's theory, however, this concept is reversed: leaders were the worst in subordinate positions. If they don't understand the company's business and lack common sense, the best solution is to relegate them to positions where their limitations can't harm the company. Positions, precisely, management.

The Dilbert Principle theoretically provides a solution to the problem constituted by the Peter Principle

The Dilbert Principle and the Doubt on Meritocracy

Two economists, Goerge Akerlof and Pascal Michaillat, tried to understand the phenomenon of promotions within the business context. For them, many promotions are explained through the principles of homophilia and xenophobia, according to the beetle syndrome: when promotion occurs, executives tend to promote their fellow men and reject those who are different.

This logic would also explain the low percentage of women in top corporate offices. Beetle syndrome prompts executives to promote those who are similar to them and, consequently, to reject those of the opposite sex.

Job promotions: statistics

Many economists believe that randomness is the driving force that best explains good entrepreneurial performance. A solution that, if contextualized at a company level, should not surprise us. After all, unlike the material world where the laws of physics and mathematics allow us to predict events with a narrow margin of error, human behaviors are not as easy to program or predict.

Randomness in the workplace can make things work well. Very important factors such as the affinity between colleagues or the adaptive capacity of a person to a new work context are, after all, difficult to predict.

Doubts and confirmations on the Dilbert principle

Beyond the popularity of this theory, there are not a few skeptical detractors regarding the Dilbert principle and its reliability. Nevertheless, there are many scholars who believe it to be reliable and in use in many companies.

When the Dilbert Principle first appeared in the business world, most human resources experts viewed it as a humorous version of hierarchical theories applied at the government level. What is the point of deliberately promoting one's less competent employees into positions of high responsibility?

Yet, over time, many of those same experts have come to appreciate the Dilbert Principle. In many large companies it has become evident that certain management roles have moved far away from routine operations. Promoting low-skilled people into roles away from daily business and into poorly defined management roles is a solution to resolving quarrels with customers, co-workers or supervisors.

Although this principle may at first glance seem nothing more than a satirical attack on the world of human resources, it has quickly become a very common interpretation of many entrepreneurial realities. But to what extent can this logical and surprising principle work?

The whole theory is substantially based on an indispensable starting point: the managerial roles of a company are of lesser importance than hierarchically lower roles. But is it always a true phenomenon? In reality this variable is susceptible to various factors, which make Dilbert's logic not always applicable.

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