Hugh MacLeod’s cartoon is a pitch-perfect symbol of an unorthodox school of management based on the axiom that organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs.
.. So while most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school, which I’ll call the Whyte school, would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.
.. The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.
.. The Sociopaths defeated the Organization Men and turned them into The Clueless not by reforming the organization, but by creating a meta-culture of Darwinism in the economy: one based on job-hopping, mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, cataclysmic reorganizations, outsourcing, unforgiving start-up ecosystems, and brutal corporate raiding. In this terrifying meta-world of the Titans, the Organization Man became the Clueless Man. Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed. The result is the modern creative-destructive life cycle of the firm, which I’ll call the MacLeod Life Cycle.
.. Based on the MacLeod lifecycle, we can also separate the three layers based on the timing of their entry and exit into organizations. The Sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive. They are also the ones capable of equally impersonally exploiting a young idea for growth in the beginning, killing one good idea to concentrate resources on another at maturity, and milking an end-of-life idea through harvest-and-exit market strategies.
.. The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot.
.. The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm — the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned.
.. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left
.. 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 Gervais principle differs from the Peter Principle, which it superficially resembles. The Peter Principle states that all people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. It is based on the assumption that future promotions are based on past performance. The Peter Principle is wrong for the simple reason that executives aren’t that stupid, and because there isn’t that much room in an upward-narrowing pyramid. They know what it takes for a promotion candidate to perform at the to level. So if they are promoting people beyond their competence anyway, under conditions of opportunity scarcity, there must be a good reason.
.. Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in the Peter Principle, proposed the Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a Clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the Sociopath level.
.. In Season Three, the Dunder-Mifflin executives decide to merge the Stamford and Scranton branches, laying off much of the latter, including Michael Scott. His counterpart, the Sociopath Stamford branch manager, whose promotion is the premise of the re-org, opportunistically leverages his impending promotion into an executive position at a competitor, leaving the c0mpany in disarray. The Dunder-Mifflin executives, forced to deal with the fallout, cynically play out the now-illogical re-org anyway, shutting down Stamford and leaving Michael with the merged branch instead. The executives (David Wallace and Jan Levinson-Gould) are completely aware of Michael’s utter incompetence. Their calculations are obvious: giving Michael the expanded branch allows them to claim short-term success and buy time to maneuver out of having to personally suffer longer-term consequences.
Jim’s remark on the drama is revealing. Comparing Michael to his exiting sociopath peer he says: “Whatever you say about Michael, he would never have done something like this,” a testament to Michael’s determinedly deluded loyalty to the company that will never be loyal to him. We can safely assume that Michael’s previous promotion to regional manager occurred under similar circumstances of callous short-term calculations by sociopaths.
.. So why is promoting over-performing Losers logical? The simple reason is that if you over-perform at the Loser level, it is clear that you are an idiot. You’ve already made a bad bargain, and now you’re delivering more value than you need to, making your bargain even worse. Unless you very quickly demonstrate that you know your own value by successfully negotiating more money and/or power, you are marked out as an exploitable clueless Loser. At one point, Darryl, angling for a raise, learns to his astonishment that the raise he is asking for would make his salary higher than Michael’s. Michael hasn’t negotiated a better deal in 14 years. Darryl — a minimum-effort Loser with strains of Sociopath — doesn’t miss a step. He convinces and coaches Michael into asking for his own raise, so he can get his.
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.
.. The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.
.. But when the rest of the office learns of Michael’s impending interview (during Michael’s farcical attempts at using a Survivor style contest to choose his successor, which predictably, only Dwight takes seriously), the true Sociopaths act. Jim and his Sociopath girlfriend Karen instantly call up David and announce their candidacies for the same position. Unknown to them, Ryan, the intern-turned-rookie, has also spotted the opportunity. The outcome is spectacular: Ryan gets the job, Michael loses, Karen is promoted to manager of the Utica branch, and Jim — who still has not yet completely embraced his inner Sociopath — returns to Scranton. We learn later — as the Gervais principle would predict — that David Wallace never seriously considered Michael more than a temporary last resort. Much later, in a deposition during Jan’s lawsuit against the company, he reveals that Michael was never a serious candidate.
.. So the Loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere. For Stanley it is crossword puzzles. For Angela it is a colorless Martha-Stewartish religious life. For Kevin, it is his rock band. For Kelly, it is mindless airhead pop-culture distractions. Pam has her painting ambitions.
.. If you leave out the clear marked-for-Clueless characters, Dwight and Andy, you are left with the two most interesting characters in the show: the will-he-won’t-he Sociopath-in-the-making, Jim, and the strange Toby. Toby is a curious case — intellectually a Sociopath, but without the energy or ambition to be an active sociopath.
.. The Sociopaths know that the only way to make an organization capable of survival is to buffer the intense chemistry between the producer-Losers and the leader-Sociopaths with enough Clueless padding in the middle to mitigate the risks of business.
.. And here we find that Ryan is still not quite experienced enough as a sociopath. He foolishly goes the Enron route, attempting to cook the books to avoid failure, and is found out and arrested. A true master Sociopath like David Wallace would instead have spotted the impending failure, promoted a Michael to take over (who would obviously be so gratified at being given a new white-elephant title that he would not have seen disaster looming), and have him take the blame for the inevitable failure. Completely legal and efficient.
.. . 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 ..
.. 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).
.. where Gervais has broken new ground, primarily because as an artist, he is interested in the subjective experience of being Clueless (most sitcoms are about Losers). For your everyday Sociopath, it is sufficient to label someone clueless and manipulate them. What Gervais managed to create is a very compelling portrait of the Clueless, a work of art with real business value.
.. Here is the ultimate explanation of Michael Scott’s (and David Brent’s) careers: they are put into a position of having to explain their own apparent, unexpected and unexamined success. It is easy to explain failure. Random success is harder. Remember, they are promoted primarily as passive pawns to either allow the Sociopaths to escape the risks of their actions, or to make way for the Sociopaths to move up faster. They are presented with an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance: being nominally given greater power, but in reality being safely shunted away from the pathways of power. They must choose to either construct false narratives or decline apparent opportunities.
.. The Clueless resolve this dissonance by choosing to believe in the reality of the organization. Not everybody is capable of this level of suspension of disbelief. Both Ricky Gervais (David Brent) and Steve Carrel (Michael Scott) play the brilliantly drawn characters perfectly. The most visible sign of their capacity for self-delusion is their complete inability to generate an original thought. They quote movie lines, lyrics and perform terrible impersonations (at one point Michael goes, “You talking to me?” a line he attributes, in a masterful display of confusion, to “Al Pacino, Raging Bull“). For much of what he needs to say, he gropes for empty business phrases, deploying them with staggering incompetence. When Michael talks, he is attempting, like a child, to copy the flawless Powertalk spoken by sociopaths like Jan and David Wallace. He is oblivious to the fact that the Sociopaths use Powertalk as a coded language with which to simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the Clueless and communicate with each other.
.. It is not just the Sociopaths who conspire to sustain Michael’s delusions. So do the checked-out Losers, sometimes out of kindness, and sometimes out of self-interest. In one particularly perfect summing up, Oscar describes the impending “Dundies” award ceremony (a veritable monument to the consensual enablement of Michael’s delusions) as “The Dundies are kind of like a kid’s birthday party. And you go, and there’s really nothing for you to do there, but the kid’s having a really good time, so you… You’re kind of there. That’s… That’s kind of what it’s like.”
.. But Michael’s grand narrative requires constant, exhausting work to keep up. He must amplify and rope in even the most minor piece of validation into the service of his script. When, in a moment of weakness, Jim shares a genuine confidence with him, Michael is so thrilled that he turns the moment into a deep imaginary friendship, practically becoming a stalker, even mimicking Jim’s hairstyle. At the other end, he over-represses even the slightest potential dent to his self-image.
.. This sort of ability to work hard to sustain the theater of his own delusions, half-aware that he is doing so, is what makes Michael a genuine candidate for promotion to the ranks of the Clueless. Dwight is interesting precisely because he lacks Michael’s capacity for this pathological meta-cognition, and the ability to offer semi-believable scripts that others can at least help bolster. Dwight is not talented enough at Cluelessness to ever be promoted.