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What is the Dilbert Principle?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2014
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Cartoonist Scott Adams' syndicated comic strip "Dilbert" routinely satirizes the corporate world and the strange characters who inhabit it. In the 1990s, Adams developed his own satirical "Dilbert Principle" in response to the popularity of human resource axioms such as the "Peter Principle." While the Peter Principle holds that competent employees are routinely promoted until they reach a level of incompetence, this principle suggests that incompetent employees are often promoted to management positions simply to prevent further damage in the working ranks.

Under the Dilbert Principle, an incompetent computer programmer would be "promoted" out of his or her department in order to allow other competent programmers an opportunity to work in peace, for example. The newly promoted manager would be able to fill his or her day by attending ineffectual meetings and composing mission statements, while the rank-and-file workers could get on with actual company business.

When the tongue-in-cheek Dilbert Principle first appeared in print, most human resource and business organization experts considered it to be nothing more than a satirical take on established management hierarchy theories. It would make little sense for company leaders to deliberately promote their least competent employees to managerial positions with major responsibilities. Promotions were intended to reward competent employees for their skills, not remove incompetent employees from the line of fire.

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Over time, however, many of these same experts would come to see the hidden wisdom behind the Dilbert Principle. In many large corporations, it became apparent that certain upper management positions had become far removed from the day-to-day operations of the company. It was indeed feasible to promote incompetent employees out of a regular department and into nebulous middle management positions in order to placate irate customers, disgruntled co-workers or frustrated supervisors.

While the Dilbert Principle may have began as a satirical jab at human resource practices, it has since become required reading in many business organization classes. The actual number of incompetent employees who have benefited from such promotions may always be a matter of dispute, but at least the corporate world does admit the Dilbert Principle is closer to the truth than first suspected.

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anon307938
Post 8

Whether one likes or not, the truth is this "Dilbert Principle" does happen in companies. A good programmer may be many times not as good a manager. He may even question the management, but a dumb one would act as a puppet in the hands of the management.

Many managers know how to handle their problems themselves and they just want someone who will just pass on the instructions to the lower level, not ones who will question their ways or suggest methods to them. Such managers would always prefer incompetent ones at the managerial level.

anon163022
Post 7

This definition of the Dilbert Principle is widely promulgated, but false. The fundamental tenet of the Dilbert principle is that everyone is an idiot in one way or another and the difference between you and everyone else is that it is obvious to everyone else the ways in which you are an idiot.

anon59445
Post 6

I have seen a lot of organisations promote incompetent, but committed or loyal employees to HR - a department where they consider them to affect business the least. I have even seen a company having 5 HR managers, 2 VPs and 10 senior managers for a 1000 employee strength. - anu

anon19195
Post 5

Human beings have a considerable capacity to hate or love a person irrationally for past actions. Maybe it is an unconscious desire to get revenge for a hurt, not necessarily by the same person or a desire to to be judged kindly for ones own failures.

This irrationality overrides commonsense and in some cease leads to self sacrifice. Faithful battered wives, loving abused children are more in evidence that haters.

DonBales
Post 4

I don't know that they are still doing it, but in the past I knew of a man who was "sandwiched." He was an alcoholic, but previously had evidently been a good and valuable employee with a very important job, managing transportation for a large company.

He was promoted, but with someone above and below him to prevent his doing harm. I considered this to be very benevolent, if not efficient. Could a company afford to do that now?

It seems that a lot is going on in our government and in our economy that is not working very well. In fact, it is working in disastrous fashion.

anon19171
Post 3

I have not seen the Dilbert Principle at work in any workplace I've been in. However I have seen many incompetent nincompoops promoted for various reasons: the boss likes them; to be used as a block to prevent more talented people from achieving higher positions thus removing a threat to their own positions in the future by people more competent; incompetent managers promote inappropriate people because they do not have the skill and insight to choose the best applicant. I believe professional jealousy and office politics play a huge part in who wins high positions unfortunately! That's why so many organizations always seem to disappoint - particularly the public service.

anon19168
Post 2

I have an idea about incompetent workers...instead of giving them more money to be more incompetent..how about giving them the boot...and telling them why...maybe they will either get more education and change their ways, or they will go to the next job and do the same. Advancing someone to get them out of the ranks creates animosity among your employees and is just plain senseless.

screenwriter
Post 1

Thanks for the great example of reality following fantasy. But, just who gets to tell the nitwit newly-promoted manager he's a titular nincompoop? Certainly not the rank & file! I've seen this in my workplace. It is the by product of lazy laissez-faire management.

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