The Dilbert & Peter Principle

(photo courtesy of Dilbert Comic Strip)

During a meeting recently, the Dilbert Principle was mentioned and very few people had any idea what it was beyond a comic strip. There were several blank stares among group members.

To be honest, the individual sharing her story about the Dilbert Principle was confusing it with the Peter Principle.
So, after the meeting, I asked several other attendees about the two principles, and some folks heard of them, but couldn’t remember what they meant. Others had no clue.

While these may be old management terms, we can also identify these principles within our own environments yet didn’t know there was a principle behind it.

Therefore, we thought it might be a good refresher for some readers while providing a brief introduction to others. This doesn’t require an MBA, so we accessed our favorite user created resource, Wikipedia.

The Peter Principle
The Peter Principle states, “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” 

In other words, employees who perform their roles with competence are promoted into even higher levels until they reach a specific level at which they are no longer competent. There they remain.

For example, let’s say you are a brilliant programmer. You spend your days coding with amazing efficiency and prowess. After a couple of years, you’re promoted to lead programmer, and then promoted to team manager. You may have no interest in managing other programmers, but it’s a reward for your competence.

However, your skill set doesn’t match up – people skills are lacking, no leadership ability, you don’t enjoy listening to others complain, nor nurturing them along.

You have risen to a level of incompetence. 

Now your technical skills go dormant while you fill your day with one-on-one meetings, department strategy meetings, planning meetings, budgets, and reports.

The Dilbert Principle
The Dilbert Principle is related to the Peter Principle, but the Dilbert Principle states, “Companies tend to systematically promote their least competent employees to management (generally middle management), to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing.”

In contrast to the Peter Principle, which seems to promote competent employees out of good faith (though it works toward the employees’ detriment), Dilbert sees management as a place to stuff the incompetent employees so they are no longer blocking the productive workflow of the company.

The Dilbert Principle assumes,”The majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder,” and those in management do very little to move forward the work.

You can see the Dilbert principle play out in The Office, Office Space, and other parodies of corporate culture.
Neither of these principles give much credit to upper management. Either the wrong person fills the wrong role, or the role exists only to minimize damage control.

Therefore, the solution is: put individuals to work in their core competencies. 

It makes little sense to take your most brilliant engineer and have him or her manage people and budgets, or don’t promote your most outgoing sales person to a job that entails back room operations.

It also makes no sense to remove a person from a line position and promote them to middle management just to keep them from causing damage to your company. We’ve all heard stories about the manager who was promoted to a regional position, or given a positive reference to an out of state counterpart just to remove the person from their organization – make the troubled employee a problem for someone else to address.

Some will be quick to dismiss these elementary principles and accuse them of not being grounded in reality. We are sure that MBA schools have figured out more technical terms for these principles. However, to dismiss these assertions, all we ask is for you to look around your office. How about your favorite nonprofit? What about your local school system?

Can you spot a colleague who has fallen victim to the Dilbert or Peter Principle?

Todd Smekens

Journalist, consultant, publisher, and servant-leader with a passion for truth-seeking. Enjoy motorcycling, meditation, and spending quality time with my daughter and rescue hound. Spiritually-centered first and foremost. Lived in multiple states within the USA and frequent traveler to the mountains.

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