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Peter, Dunning, and Dilbert

Entry 1361, on 2012-02-16 at 13:03:49 (Rating 4, Comments)

A while back I blogged about the "Peter Principle" and how it explains the poor state of management and leadership in modern society. But after reading a bit more about the subject it now seems that things are even worse than I imagined!

There's another effect called the "Dunning–Kruger Effect" which is also relevant. Here's the definition from Wikipedia: "a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities."

So not only do people get promoted to positions they are incompetent in but they are so bad that they don't even see their own deficiencies. I often wonder whether most managers realise they are useless and just pretend that they are really valuable but the situation is probably even worse: they genuinely think they are competent!

Now I'm sure we can all think of some managers and other leaders who are actually quite good at their job. Maybe we are even so lucky that we can think of some who are exceptional. But in my own experience and in the anecdotes I hear from others it's clear that the vast majority are useless. In fact it's even worse than that: they are worse than useless, they actually have negative value.

There's yet another related effect which is slightly less serious but also has an element of truth. That's the Dilbert Principle which states: leadership is nature's way of removing morons from the productive flow. In other words leadership is a way of moving useless people out of the areas where things actually get done.

The Dilbert Principle was a satirical observation by Scott Adams, the cartoonist who creates the Dilbert cartoon which usually deals with petty office politics. While his work is intended to be humorous it is often disturbingly close to real life.

Finally there's the well-known paper titled "The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study" by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofalo from the University of Catania in Italy which used computational modeling to show that common methodologies to decide on promotion produce a worse outcome than choosing people at random.

Surely it must be clear to any thinking person that current management systems are at best deeply flawed and maybe more realistically grossly corrupt and only capable of enabling the mediocre and incompetent holding back progress which the rest of us might otherwise be capable of.

I'm often asked why I am still "just" a consultant/programmer after working at the same place for so long. The answer is I have too much self-respect to join a management structure I have little confidence in. So I'm not one of those who have been promoted to a position I'm incompetent at. I know I'm good at what I do so why would I change that?

The worst thing is that people like me have no chance of gaining greater remuneration or control because most organisations mistakenly think that moving into management is the only real way to advance. And I would never be offered the opportunity anyway because there's no need to invoke the Dilbert Principle to move me into a place where I can be kept out of the way of the others.

If the Dilbert principle worked as described things would actually be OK but because of the Dunning–Kruger Effect giving managers delusions of adequacy they occasionally actually try to do something and do get in the way of the rest of us, so the system is far from perfect.

Given all that I have said above there might seem little hope of rescue from this self-imposed quandary. But it seems that when you look back at history something always happens to disrupt incompetent and immoral systems. Soviet Russia fell suddenly, the Arab Spring is in progress, and the Occupy Movement is the first sign that the current system will not last much longer.

So really you've just got to hope that things will improve, even though it often seems unlikely when you experience the current poor state of leadership and the apathy amongst the majority in modern society.


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