Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Gervais Principle

Late last year I started seeing references to an interesting essay
series by Venkatesh Rao, in which he proposes the "Gervais Principle".
This principle of organisational behaviour has been distilled from the
TV series "The Office".  It's a devastating critique of behaviour in
the workplace, and is quite different to what is usually taught in
management courses.

The essays are quite detailed, and additional parts in the Gervais
Principle series may be published later this year.  In the meantime,
here are the first three parts:
* The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to "The Office"
* The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and
* The Genealogy of the Gervais Principle

If you don't have the time to read through the essays right now, I'll
try to give a very brief introduction to the basic principle.  The
principle assumes that any reasonably-sized organisation is comprised
of three broad classes of people: sociopaths, the clueless, and losers.
Here's a simple diagram of the hierarchy, by Hugh MacLeod:

The Gervais Principle is this:
"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."
The essays then go on to back this up with many examples from "The

I've held off posting about the Gervais Principle for several reasons:
* until recently I'd only skim-read the essays;
* the essays contained spoilers for fans of The Office outside the
  United States;
* the principle can be quite confronting (especially when you try to
  see where you would fit into the hierarchy);
* I had other things to write about.

I still haven't read the essays fully, but from what I have read I'm
impressed with the arguments.  The principle very neatly underpins
the dysfunctional organisation portrayed in The Office.  Fortunately
I've never had to work in such an organisation, but judging from the
comments, it appears such places do exist.  Australian viewers have
finally caught up with the material mentioned in the essays, hence
this post.

To wrap things up, here's a quote from the first essay in the series
that leads in nicely to an amusing job ad from Microsoft.  The quote:
"sociopaths use buzzspeak as a coded language with which to
 simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the clueless
 and communicate with each other."
A blog post about the job ad ("Secret language"):