The Eponymous Principles of Management

The Eponymous Principles of Management – The Dilbert Principle

Scott Adams launched his Dilbert comic strips in 1989 in a handful newspapers. The immediate fad of ‘downsizing’ fueled the success of the strip. As result, Scott Adams left his job and took up Dilbert comic strip as his full-time cartoonist occupation. Dilbert is that beloved engineer in Scott Adam’s wry observations, of managerial blunders, oversights, and plain weird behaviour. at the modern workplace in his comic strip of the same name. Dilbert is a typical, trapped in a cubicle cog, working for an unnamed tech company. Dilbert and his coterie of co-workers are tormented by the bottom-line blindness of accounting, the cruelty of human resources, the vacuity of marketing, and, above all, the clueless whims of management, personified by a nameless “pointy-haired” boss.

With such an unflattering view of business, Adams is often deemed an “anti-management guru.” But he has struck a powerful chord in the business world.

In the Dilbert strip of February 5, 1995, Dogbert states that “leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow”. This is the cornerstone of Scott Adams Dilbert Principle, which is derived from the huge fan-mail emanating from the real-life experiences of his large fan-following.

Scott Adams explained his principle in a 1995 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article[1]. Scott Adams then expanded his study of the Dilbert principle in the form of a book,  Dilbert Principle, The: A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions.[2]

The principle is stated as “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.”

The Dilbert Principle is related to the Peter Principle. In the case of Peter Principle, Peters promoted because of their competence in the present roles, find themselves, ultimately, in a situation where they are no more competent in the new role. Instead, the Dilbert Principle seems to promote incompetent employees (though it works toward the employees’ detriment), to a position where they are no longer blocking the productive workflow of the company.

In effect, The Dilbert Principle assumes that “the majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder”. In the WSJ article referred here before, Scott Adams remarks that “Your heart surgeons and your computer programmers—your smart people—aren’t in management. …That principle was literally happening everywhere.” (😐)

The Peter Principle realizes that someone particularly competent in one role may not necessarily be s competent in another role, particularly at higher positions. Fully recognising that requirements for each role is extremely specific, one can not be expected to have natural or previously acquired skills to be competent in the new role. The Dilbert Principle seems to recognise such situations and seeks to move such ‘incompetent’ people to a place where they can do the least possible harm to the organization’s interests. In other words, rather than ‘promoting’ them as a reward for the meritorious work, they are quietly placed in the least damaging roles. An earlier formulation of this effect was known as Putt’s Law (which we take up next).

Fortunately, all organizations are not necessarily similar to the Dilbert-workplace, as can be seen in the case of one documented exception of Malden Mills[3]. However, we do not want to enter into a debate whether ‘modern’ workplaces indeed reflect these “laws” truly. But the as one reads these books, whatever be his (or her) position, one does identify oneself with (good or bad or ugly) effects of these ‘laws’.

On the whole, these book(s) have always turned out be good reading, and quite insightful (if you can see through beyond the veil of satire).

[1] Reprinted without permission from The Wall Street Journal, 5/22/95@ The Humor Library

[2] Book Review – The Dilbert Principle by The Amateur Financier

[3] They Call Their Boss a Hero