The Gervais Principle

Venkatesh Rao is a researcher and full-time writer that came up with the Gervais Principle, a series of essays about power dynamics in the workplace. It’s a theory partly based on The Office that breaks down a company’s hierarchy into three sections.

  1. Sociopaths – Rao classifies the top of the pyramid structure as “Manipulative jerks that get all the rewards.”
  2. Clueless – The middle of the pyramid. “Sincere, hard-working people who …have absolutely no clue how the world works…”
  3. Losers- “At the bottom you’ve got your disengaged and burned out losers who know they’re getting a raw deal but don’t want to take risks and do anything about it so they check out, do the bare minimum possible and try to live their lives on weekends and evenings.”

It’s certainly a bit pessimistic but it’s uncomfortable because of the number of people that recognized the similarities in their own life. Rao was having trouble with the theory, until he was watching reruns of The Office. He came up with two promotion principles:
“The sociopaths at the top promote the over-performing losers to the middle because if the people at the bottom are over performing it means they don’t know they’re getting a raw deal and they’re clueless and they make for good pawns…”

“They also look for people who are underperforming, doing less than the bare minimum but are looking for the shortcuts to the top and taking risks. Normally underperformance at the bottom will get you fired but if you are visibly taking risks and shortcuts you’ll get on the sociopaths radar. That’s going to take you on the fast track to the top.”

Bummer, but it as it gets worse it also gets more interesting.

“I had retirees telling me, ‘For the first time my career makes sense to me.’” Young employees also told him they were inspired to fresh take every risk they could, reaping the promotional rewards while skirting the work. The biggest revelation to the researcher was just how embedded the management principles really are. Employees and employers have been doing this for “hundreds” of years and modern management philosophy make it unlikely the workplace tension will end up like The Office, which he said is popular because of “American fondness for the redemptive tale and happy ending.”

Here’s a video of his speech at the Economist. More details on the Gervais Principle are available on the Ribbon Farm.

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