The Null Device

The Gervais Principle

The Gervais Principle, or the social psychology of how organisations really function, as seen in the Office TV comedies:
Now, after four years, I’ve finally figured the show out. The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. 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 I will call The Gervais Principle, which supersedes both the Peter Principle and its successor, The Dilbert Principle.
The McLeod hierarchy, and the theory which is the cornerstone of Ricky Gervais' comedy (and its US remake), divides organisations into three psychological types, somewhat facetiously labelled Sociopaths (i.e., those driven by the desire to control and dominate, without whom no decisions would be made), Losers (i.e., those who have made the tradeoff of security for control of their destiny; these need not necessarily be losers in the colloquial sense) and the Clueless (who are in the middle of the hierarchy, but are one level below losers in self-awareness; whereas the loser typically puts in the minimum they can get away with, the clueless give their loyalty to the organisation out of a misplaced faith that it will be reciprocated). Initially, organisations start off with a few Sociopaths in the driving seat and a corps of Losers doing the gruntwork in exchange for a regular paycheque; as they get larger, a layer of Clueless is added, and expands. This layer may be imagined as a dense, inert substance, which serves to keep the otherwise inherently unstable organisation from imploding.
A sociopath-entrepreneur 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.
The Gervais Principle builds on this, and describes how Losers who put in more than is in their best interest get promoted to middle-management, not because of their talents, or because of their incompetence (as per the Peter Principle or Dilbert Principle), but because they are most useful as pebbles in the insulating layer of the Clueless.
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.
A loser who can be suckered into bad bargains is set to become one of the clueless. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as clueless pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged loser will do. At the bottom, the overperformers can merely add a predictable amount of value. In the middle they can be used by the sociopaths to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs.
Which brings us to the other major management book that is consistent with the Gervais Principle. Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan’s magisterial study of the metaphors through which we understand organizations. Of the eight systemic metaphors in the book, the one that is most relevant here is the metaphor of an organization as a psychic prison. The image is derived from Plato’s allegory of the cave, which I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that it divides people into those who get how the world really works (the sociopaths and the self-aware slacker losers) and those who don’t (the over-performer losers and the clueless in the middle).
(Paging Greg Wadley...)

There are 6 comments on "The Gervais Principle":

Posted by: Greg Tue Nov 3 11:55:11 2009

No need to page - you had me hooked with the first para :-) This is a very interesting article, eminently worth reading, which will take me some time to digest, because it is good and also because I have similar-but-different thoughts on these issues. It's worth reading the comments too - amongst all the 'I agrees' some people have pointed out problems with the article - and there are problems. First, as one commenter hinted: 'The Office' is fiction, and no matter how realistic it appears, one builds social theories upon its characters and plot with great caution. This seems to be a one of those '90s university diseases' - the idea that one can analyze fiction in order to understand real life. It's partly doable, but only partly, because fiction is designed to strip away all the complexity of life and give viewers the pleasure of watching something that is easy to analyze. (To be fair, the author seems to have worked in real organizations, but even so.)

Posted by: Greg Tue Nov 3 12:10:15 2009

Second, as a couple of commenters point out, he needs to change his category labels. 'Sociopath' is punchy, and true of a frighteningly large proportion of leaders, but I have been struck over the years by how many people *want* a leader to tell them what to do - which makes the latter seem less pushy. 'Clueless' may be a harsh label for the hard-working middle layer who want to believe the organizational line. 'Losers' seems to be misleading (and the author acknowledges this) especially for the 'low-effort' sub-category - perhaps 'slackers' or 'powerless' would be better. Third, as one commenter points out, it is not obvious why sociopaths in power would want to promote fellow sociopaths they recognize within the lower ranks. Unless there is some kind of Dawkinsian 'green beard effect' operating, they might be just as motivated to see them gotten rid of as competitors. Fourth, as another commenter points out, things seem to work differently in government organizations - and one suspects elsewhere too.

Posted by: Greg Tue Nov 3 12:26:19 2009

The article's main insight is the relationship between what the author calls the 'sociopathy' of the executive class and the lawlessness of the meta-organizational environment in which they operate. In a comment response he notes: "By definition, they figure out where the rules end and learn to operate in the undefined regions beyond." This is what is so easy for underlings to miss, and what can make them clueless - the fact that the comforting rule structure which the underling seeks within the lower levels of organizations is not available to the executive, who must make do in the relatively dog-eat-dog world outside the structure. The commenter 'Dan G' is making this point when he argues that the author's categories really describe different degrees of aversion to risk. Risk-aversion is not a fixed trait - it is a response to situation, and therefore can be quite mutable within an individual's life. For example, one is likely to be more risk-averse while raising children than before and afterward.

Posted by: unixdj Wed Nov 4 22:20:52 2009

It took me a while to read the whole article and some comments (been busy), but I didn't want to post my thoughts before reading the whole thing.

The article says that when the company is founded, "A sociopath-entrepreneur with an idea recruits just enough losers to kick off the cycle." Given the article's definition of "losers", this is completely off the mark. The first recruits to a start-up are usually the "clueless", whom Dan G. calls "believers" in his comments: people who will work hard for years hoping to profit eventually (though not by being noted and promoted, but by selling their shares after the IPO).

Also, it's quite telling that in this comment the author seems to imply that a professional career (i.e., that of a "clueless"/"believer") can't be satisfactory and that it doesn't pay enough. (Definitions of "enough" differ, but I don't know anyone who has a job and can't feed himsel

Posted by: unixdj Wed Nov 4 22:30:57 2009

...f and his kids.) Which probably means that he thinks that work is nothing but climbing the corporate ladder and engaging in office politics.

Movies about corporations seem to imply this -- they're focused on this aspect of corporate life. This is fine by itself -- after all, works of fiction must be focused on specific aspects of life to have meaning, but it seems a little bit unnatural that there's a huge building full of people engaging in sitting near computers, having meetings, discussing profits(!) and plotting against each other, but after watching them for several seasons you don't have any idea what the company produces. They never have any deadlines and releases. All discussions are about finances, reorganizations and office politics, no technical meetings. But if you start to think there's all there is, you're falling into the fallacy described above by Greg as "the idea that one can analyze fiction in order to understand real life". Has this guy ever worked?

Posted by: acb Wed Nov 4 23:45:47 2009

I think that the term "loser", as Greg said above, was poorly chosen. By this token, a loser is anyone who does not judge the value of his life by success in business, and would encompass anyone from devoted parents to aspiring artists for whom the job is just a living. (Of course, the Calvinist work ethic present in the more conservative parts of the Anglosphere (not to mention analogous ethics from places like the Confucian world; Momus' essay on Japanese "superlegitimacy" is a case in point) would have us believe that such calculations are inherently immoral and sinful, and that the only decent thing is to be one of the Clueless who give the job our all.)

Of course, there is such a thing as job satisfaction; if you're fortunate enough to get paid for doing something you enjoy, putting in the bare minimum out of slackerly principle is perhaps just as silly as devoting oneself to meaningless dronework.

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