The Gervais Principle, named after Ricky Gervais, the creator of The Office, and coined by Venkatesh Rao, of Ribbonfarm, recognises the The MacLeod Model of Hierarchy wherein at the top of any organization are sociopaths, at the bottom are losers, and in the middle are the clueless.
Venkatesh Rao has spelt in detail his views on The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office” in his well-laid out series on his blog, which can be accessed at Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook. It’s a primer that explains theories of office politics beginning with William Whyte’s The Organization Man in the 50s, then The Peter Principle in 1969, then Dilbert Principle and finally his own theory drawn from The Office which he dubs as The Gervais Principle.
I have picked up the key points from Part I here:
Ventkatesh Rao watched the US version of the show The Office obsessively, but would keep wondering what made that show so devastatingly effective, and elevates it so far above the likes of Dilbert and Office Space. He figures out that it is a fully realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore. The theory begins with Hugh MacLeod’s well-known cartoon, Company Hierarchy, and its cornerstone is something Venkatesh Rao will call The Gervais Principle, which supersedes both the Peter Principle and its successor, The Dilbert Principle. Outside of the comic aisle, the only major and significant works consistent with the Gervais Principle are The Organization Man and Images of Organization.
Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological. So, while most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school, which Venatesh Rao calls the Whyte school, would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.
The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks. Consider this passage from William Whyte’s The Organization Man in the 1950s –
Of all organization men, the true executive is the one who remains most suspicious of The Organization. If there is one thing that characterizes him, it is a fierce desire to control his own destiny and, deep down, he resents yielding that control to The Organization, no matter how velvety its grip… he wants to dominate, not be dominated…Many people from the great reaches of middle management can become true believers in The Organization…But the most able are not vouchsafed this solace.
Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic, and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed. The result is the modern creative-destructive life cycle of the firm, which Venkatesh Rao calls the MacLeod Life Cycle.
A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the sociopaths according to meta-firm logic.
Which brings us to our main idea. How both the pyramid and its lifecycle are animated. The dynamics are governed by the Newton’s Law of organizations: the Gervais Principle, which is –
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 assumes 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 top 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. 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.
Venkatesh Rao states that – “This is where Gervais has broken new ground, primarily because as an artist, he is interested in the subjective experience of being Clueless (most sitcoms are about Losers). For your everyday Sociopath, it is sufficient to label someone clueless and manipulate them. What Gervais managed to create is a very compelling portrait of the Clueless, a work of art with real business value.”
Venkatesh Rao is so much enamoured by the Gervais’s point of view that he feels that Gervais deserves Nobel prizes in both literature and economics.
 The Gervais principle – Venkatesh Rao talks at the Economist