Anything That Interests Me! :)





Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Anything that interests me! The Dilbert and Peter Principles

Anything that interests me! The Dilbert and Peter Principles

I have been looking through my old blog posts and have discovered that I have written on quite a variety of subjects, far beyond my perimeters of "psychology, economics, history, mentalism, and yada yada". (I've also noted all sorts of tones and different nuances ranging from elation to anger, academic to non-academic, conversational tones, even.)

Well, in keeping with that I am going to mention two principles in management, which are NOT official or academic principles. They are just satirical observations and aren't based on any OLS estimation results or underlying deductive economic theories or any such stuff. They are, in other words, just for fun - although they appear very true!

The Dilbert Principle is basically Scott Adams' observation that organisations tend to promote incompetent people to higher management. (Anyone working under a bad boss or a "pointy headed boss" should know this one.)

The Peter Principle - formulated by Peter and Hull (1969) - is the observation that people who are very good at their jobs tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence because they are promoted to do things that they aren't very good at. The Generalised Peter Principle is that anything that works will be used in higher and more complicated applications until it just can't work any more.

Well, first of all, let's have a good laugh - YES, this is so true! (And you know it.)

I first came across these when I was working in the military (which all boys have to do in my country). My friend who happened to be a sergeant passed me a comic book by Adams and I was instantly hooked.

In any organisation - and the military is one example among many - there are several bosses who seem to know very little about what the organisation is about, and seem to be bumbling, fumbling, stumbling, mumbling morons. The question is - how did they get to be there?

I mean, the wonderful boss, the brave and strategic military commander, the elite manager, and the very smooth talking marketing genius can all get to be at the top because, wow, look at their talents - they are really capable. But there are some bosses who seem to come right from the depths of hell, and have fluff in place of brains. Explain that!

Mind you, to stress the point, we are not explaining those people who are at the top and are great leaders (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, my old colonel and many others come to mind). They either were incredibly talented and hardworking and smart from the very beginning and realised their talents, or they improved gradually, worked hard and improved along the way by learning rapidly or learning by doing, from rung to rung. No surprises there. We are instead trying to explain some inexplicable "anomaly".

Now, the Dilbert idea is that people are promoted because they are incompetent, so that they can move out of the way of the people doing the real work. That is one approach.

The Peter Principle is less cynical. It's that those guys weren't so bad at their jobs in the beginning! It's that as they went higher and higher in the job, their real skills and talents were left in the previous ladder.

As a German comedy (written about on Wikipedia, I kid you not!) said: one might make a very good sergeant, but not a good captain, and certainly a worse general.

Well, possibly.

But this is where I bring in my own views on this incredibly interesting and very odd subject. Perhaps it's got nothing to do with either the Dilbert or Peter Principle. Maybe it's got to do with schadenfreude or tall poppy syndrome? Maybe it's got to do with improper selection methods for management? But maybe... it's got to do with the so called Dunning Kruger Effect.

The thing why I guess DF and I are cleverer than average is partly due to this Dunning Kruger Effect. We know where we are deficient. Whenever I hear someone being described as a real polymath, I shudder, shake and quake, because of my economics training shouting out (loudly) "Opportunity Cost! Opportunity Cost!" I mean, I know we can all learn diverse subjects - I have wide interests too. But I acknowledge that for some of them I can never scale the full heights, especially since, even within fields I am proficient in, I can see that the mountains are nearly insurmountable.

What's this lack of cognitive dissonance got to do with incompetent people getting promoted?

Maybe the simple reason is that the people who are incompetent get promoted by people who simply are BAD at picking talent. Because they can't tell who is good, and who is bad, these gatekeepers or the next higher rank personnel pick those who appear confident, clever, smart, outspoken, and so on. No surprises there, I'd say - fairly uncontroversial. However, because these "gatekeepers" suffer from the Dunning Krueger Effect, they pick those people who suffer from the same overconfidence too!

Why don't they pick winners, in that case? Because the Dunning Krueger Effects predicts that people who are really competent tend to underestimate their true abilities whilst incompetent people tend to overlook genuine true ability. Thus, incompetent manager might pass over truly competent but humble worker in favour of falsely overconfident incompetent worker!

That's my tentative take on it. Plausible?


Nah, I give up. I've absolutely no idea why there are "pointy haired bosses".

Shouldn't evolutionary fitness or evolution or profit maximisation weed these guys out?

Your guess in this case is really as good as mine.

Anything that interests me!