Greedy Goblin

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gervais principle

I got this link long-long time ago. It's a hard read and was unsure that I could turn it into anything that fits to the blog. It's not only I cannot just copy&paste someone else's idea (that's too easy to catch in the age of google), but also I was unsatisfied with the idea itself, despite its obvious brilliance.

It's based on the TV series the Office, that is more than just a gag-series, it's a Dilbert-like cynical philosophy about corporations, along the line: "organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological."

I couldn't agree more as no one (except the owner) is motivated for the success of the organization, merely for his own personal goals. It also explains a fact that is hard (or impossible) to explain by any existing management schools: "why do corporates always reorganizing, merging, splitting, laying off...". I mean if there would be some "good" management scheme, then someone would achieve it by now (even by luck), therefore this perfect organization would be stable and endure everything.

This idea presents the following scheme:
It appears to be true and simple, so it's quite easy to fall in love with at first sight. However the explanation for it is quite made up and lacks the style and simplicity.

It introduces the "sociopaths" as "Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself". Cold-hearted businessmen and managers who comes up with a good idea, then do what must be done.

The description of "losers" is also correct: "they are primarily losers in the economic sense: those who have, for various reasons, made (or been forced to make) a bad economic bargain: they’ve given up some potential for long-term economic liberty (as capitalists) for short-term economic stability. Traded freedom for a paycheck in short." However I don't necessarily see them as "losers". I'd rather use the term "grinders", as they do repetitive work, but still, they are supporting themselves, which is not "loser" for me.

However the emerging layer of "clueless" is a major problem. The Gervais-principle says: "As it [the organization] grows it requires a clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction rather than a runaway explosion." is simply nonsense. Later it's telling that the clueless are created by the sociopaths for their own short-term goals, usually to take a fall or as scapegoats: "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." This is nonsense. Such cases exist but rare, exactly because the scapegoat is built for sacrifice, so they cannot stay, therefore their current number is any time low. Also, as an anecdotal evidence, as a sociopath, I can guarantee that we don't feed this type.

So let me give a much better explanation of the cycle: the "clueless" are actually "the socials". People with no skill in what they supposed to do, nor with creative skills, but skills in manipulating other people, mainly the grinders. The "clueless" or "social" layer in the company is not created by anyone, especially not by the sociopaths. They emerge on their own using their connections and power over the grinders. They are obviously incompetent for their job, yet they can keep it because everyone around them like them or at least finds it "unethical" to remove them. They usually has the social skills to make a good first impression to have a chance, then they take it by manipulating the feelings of the people around them. They run under the flag "it wasn't my fault". They are pretty good to blame failures on non-personal actors like "bad luck", or even if it's clearly their fault, they can blame it on "mistake" or result of "good intentions".

The other major way of their emergence is that they were useful grinders once, but they got old, sick, depressed or simply their job changed or disappeared due to market effects. Yet they can stay inside the organization, either in their former job, or in a fake job created exactly for them. In this case often the law make them stay: it's pretty hard and expensive to fire someone simply because he is useless in several countries. It's easier in the short term to keep them in some jobs.

They can stay because they seduce the grinders around them. If the middle manager is another social or grinder (what is quite probable), he doesn't even think of touching them, while a sociopath must think twice before removing them, since the cost is the hate and despair of all people in the department. The reason for despair is that they see the social as "one of us", as they are unable to see that the social actually does nothing useful, so they fear they will be the next. After all, he was "loyal, hard working, selfless". In the eyes of grinders and socials these are more important values than competence (that's why they are grinders at the first place). So the sociopath is forced to keep the social to prevent a serious moral drop among his minions.

The number of socials does not just grow, it grows exponentially, as the more they are, the harder it is to keep any kind of competence standard. This way they soon reach the point when the hard work of the grinders can not provide for them and the company collapses. After, or soon before this point one of the sociopath start a reorganization plan, when he conspicuously moves departments and branches, but actually just lays off most of the socials with some grinders (collateral damage). The reorganization has to be big to hide the fact that it was targeted against the socials. The sociopath here uses the social trick: "it wasn't my fault, the economy forced my hand". With the losers remaining losers, the cycle starts again, collecting socials into the organization.

So reorganizations are actually spring cleanings in order to cleanse the organization from (non-loser) socials.

You can see it in non-top WoW guilds all the time. They are started by a core of relatively good players, and first collect people who are ready to farm, put things to guildbank and accept lower loot priority as trials. But over time the guild start collecting socials who mess up the raid and create drama, yet they cannot be kicked without huge drama. Sooner or later the guild breaks and new one is formed by those who could actually play (sociopaths and grinders).


icy said...

So what's the reasoning behind why top guilds/organisations are 'immune' to getting the socials in who break up the guild? Strict recruitment? Even with strict recruitment it's hard to find people who are actually dedicated to the organization.

akanet said...

It is a combination of strict recruitment and strict performance assessment.

Anonymous said...

As someone who was worked in high levels of companies for a long time, people DO create scrapegoats.

Not because of intellegence, but because of the lack of it.

If I want to fire some looser in my department - its not exactly easy under employment law. The guy does his job badly, but not badly enough to sack him. All I can do is give him a glowing reference to help get rid of him. I can also encorage him to apply for other departments/jobs etc

These loosers end up being promoted out of their job. Sometimes even promoted to senior management But because they are not smart, they have to ensure that the staff layer below them are less capable than they are (otherwise they will be exposed for being idiots)

So the management tree becomes the hard working company owners on the top layer, hard working front line staff and the middle laying becoming a bunch of loosers. Banking sector is a perfect example of this.

These loosers need to create scrapegoats to protect their own jobs.

Wooly said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with this post. I can't agree more myself. Coming from big firms, I recognize that layering, because already had some similar view on it. But this is just perfect.

There's a quote made by a friend of mine that he made after his first weeks at work after he finished the university. It has stuck with me as one of my favorite quotes, because it was just so very spot on. And it fits the picture you're describing perfectly.

He said: "When I was still studying I had this expectation that companies were these well structured organizations where everyone would act very professional, but the reality is that they're noting more then a bunch of monkeys patting each other on the shoulder".

Personally I've always had serious problems with this middle layer. I've been a part of it too, and it drove me nuts. Since the day I work, I could get along with the losers/grinders and usually also the absolute top, but I've always despised the people in that middle layer. The whole middle layer is build up my social hierarchy, not competence hierarchy. It's the world of kissing ass and "visibility". The world of make belief.

Kevan Smith said...

I know English is not your native language, but you do a good job with it for the most part.

However, the term sociopath may not be the word you are looking for if you are using it to describe "socials." Or it may have been.

Clarify? Thanks.

Gevlon said...

@Icy: no one gives a damn is they are dedicated to the organization as long as they do their job.

@Kevan: "sociopath" was defined in the original idea linked. I simply reused the term, although I would rather use "goblin".

Yaggle said...

Genrally, I agree with you. At my work, I would say at least 2/3 of the workers are what you call "socials", people I work with that I considered highly flawed and underperforming. My company is constantly doing things to try to break them, but the things they do affect me, also. I find my sometimes feeling very angry and rebellious, that they would harm highly productive grinders like myself. But then I watch my co-workers and see how much they hold the company back. I cannot think of any solution and I see how the collateral damage is necessary to keep the company from failing. However, I do see corporations as a sociopathic construct and I don't really trust that they would reward me better if they could get rid of the socials. About 20 years ago when I made minimum wage, productive co-worker of mine told me, "If there was no minimum wage, other people would be paid less, but we would be paid more". I have always doubted that thesis. I believe that greed and megalomania are more definitive characteristics of the sociopaths at the top than any intelligence or ability to discern productive grinders from socials. There are rare exceptions but not enough to keep me from siding with the socials. Perhaps that is what the socials depend on, and I do wish there was a better way.

Anonymous said...

"they are unable to see that the social actually does nothing useful"

I loled. I just hope you will never have to actually manage ppl because it will be a disater if you think scial is useless. As an IT prof employee I garantee you taht social is the first thing. If you are not social with me as my boss my work will be slow, it will never be my fault, i'll always be able to blame this hardware failure or this software bug but in the end work will be done slowly. If you are social I'll do my best and work will be done wuisker and better. Simple human interactions rules.

Quicksilver said...

again: social != "social"

interesting post btw

Anonymous said...

"as no one (except the owner)" Do you realize that hardly anyone owns companies any more? Gervais is a regional manager in the office not an owner.

because no one owns their companies they take stupid risks. Since most public companies are not held by 1 person or 1 family any more no one really owns them.

The stupidity flows down hill from the top to the bottom, not from bottom up.

Wulfen of Dreadmaul said...

I can absolutely attest to the truth of the statement that socials exist to leech off grinders. These socials use their ability to convince others to help them - thus assigning work to those grinders and avoiding doing it themselves.

I spent three months working as a temp in a law firm and did almost zero work because I looked busy when the bosses came around, and convinced other people to do my work when I could. I only got fired because I couldn't believe how stupid they were and stopped hiding my sloth.

It was demoralising to find that my work had zero value because whether I ground my eight hours a day or slacked, the group carried me regardless.

Why put in effort when you can get someone else to do your work for you because they feel good for doing something 'nice' for you? Hello, socials. (Ew! I was a social for three months!)

The irony is that the 'social' employee is actually manipulating behaviour in the same way a psychopath does. They merely have different goals - psychopaths desire dominance (mostly), socials want to leech. Which would make the 'social' employee a powerfully anti-social force (like a psychopath), and anyone who listens to the lure of 'help me and I'll be your friend' an idiot grinder carrying the slackers.

The solution? Always get equal value. Is a 'happy moment' and a compliment worth spending an hour's unpaid overtime to finish someone else's overdue report? Not in my book. I could get ten times that pleasure by flirting with random people I meet in a shop.

Socials feed grinders (free) emotional boosting in exchange for time-costly material boosting (doing socials' work for them). But the boosting is free because the grinders farmed it, amirite?

Which means it all comes back to poor perception of opportunity cost. >.<

PS (@Anonymous 5 Nov 15:05): "Because nobody owns their companies, they take stupid risks." Public ownership is another kind of bloat, in which the company exchanges an immediate capital inflow for a near-permanent liability. The owners become the socials, demanding ever-more dividends and capital growth from the company in exchange for a one-off capital infusion. I firmly believe that privately held companies are far more profitable than public ones, as public shareholders endlessly leech growth from the company while at least a debt-financed private firm can pay off its debts and every further dollar stays within the family.

Stupidity flows both ways. ^_^

Please correct me if my logic is in error, it is quite late.

Jeff said...

Interesting factoid about Microsoft, the most highly qualified and educated employees are? Human Resources, HR is normally a domain for people with now other useful skills beyond copying and filing. But at Microsoft the philosophy goes like this, A's hire A's but B's hire C's. The thinking behind this is that if you are already a top performer you aren't threatened by another top performer. If you are more average you don't want to take the risk of hiring some one who could take your job.

Seems to have worked out for Micorsoft, which employs more millionaires than any other company in the world.

Unknown said...

Manipulating grinders seems like a managerial must to me.

RocknOats said...

To add to the point, if it is not a privately owned company, the socials will rise all the way to the top. My company is rife with idiotic behavior and it isn't limited to the middle layers. It takes a real entrepreneur(goblin) at the head of a company to stave off the cancer of socials. If there isn't a singular vision for the company the socials feed on the infrastructure like yummy lung cells in a smoker.

Anonymous said...

I once ran a small company where everyone was expected to produce somewhat the same amount of work in a given timeframe. My observation from that is that "good people don't want to work with bad people."

When people would slack off, the top performers would complain that they had to do more work (the bottom people only made excuses). If we didn't respond, the good people would quit.

Our solution (as mentioned in a post above) was to set clear expectations from the start and review performance monthly. If someone wasn't performing, they were given time to "improve" or were asked to leave. Usually people were either good or bad, so we could weed out low performers in their "trial" phase.

Likewise, if we kept the level of the employees high, more good employees would apply to work there. When it dropped, only more bad people would apply for work. The key was the manager, though. If she was good she would hire more good people because she was focused on the corect priorities. If she was bad (social/slaker) she would hire more of the same so they would not complain about her.

In the end, these human dynamics cannot be ignored. A good manager/employee does need a balance of all three traits to survive in an organization. The problem is that only a small percentage of the people have the right balance.

Ken Blanchard, the famous management consultant, said "there are only two reasons why people don't do something. Either they can't (a training issue), or they won't (an attitude issue)". You have to decide early on what you are dealing with. If it's attitude (usually), you have to let them go or they'll be allowed to infect the organization negatively.

MyName said...

I think you're missing out on something else. Not all of the socials are in "made-up jobs". Some of them are simply underqualified for the jobs, but they get them anyways because they were good at being a grinder.

It's the Peter principle, where people are comtinually promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer good at their job anymore.

N said...

Pretty good article. Seems borne out in my experience.

Guilds definitely cycle this way. You have the hard core of people who show up every time and do an awesome job, the skillful "base" who show up most of the time and do what they're told, and then the "nice" people, who suck but are too nice to be kicked.

Then the skilled players get sick of it, leave, form their own guild, do 10-man hard modes until they have 25, and then find that they can't do 25-man hard modes. Yup.

Aelus said...

There is a system that bypasses some of the problems inherent in the business model you describe. The Cravath System, otherwise known as "up or out", is fairly simple: after a pre-defined time frame, a worker is evaluated for promotion. If they are passed over for this promotion, they are fired. This pattern continues until the worker is either fired or makes the top rank in the organization, effectively turning grinders into sociopaths, while eliminating the socials.

Several types of companies use this model in combination with strict hiring requirements, including many law and consulting firms, academic institutions (tenure), and in the military (in US, officers who are passed up for promotion 3 times are discharged). This seems to fit the method of top raiding guilds, where it is hard to get in and you are evaluated often.

Happyending said...

Gevlon, this is how it translates when the socials try and get Blizzard to change things so they even get more free stuff without having to anything to earn it.

csdx said...

I think the clueless growth is attributable to the saying "everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence?" Basically, they may be a really good grinder, so they're moved up to be in charge of a few grinders. They're ok at that and eventually moved up a rank. And so on, until they get a job they're just good enough to do, but not good enough to get promoted. Thus everyone is promoted up to the level at which they're incompetent at.

Tonus said...

My only comment is that the "clueless/social" layer in that graphic does not have to become so large to harm a company. They are usually a relatively small number of people, but because they insinuate themselves between ownership and production they can have a devastating effect.

Anonymous said...

My experience is that work-related people are better classified using a 2 component system.
Component 1: competence (competent/incompetent)
Component 2: work ethic (self-motivated/lazy)

The problem with the sociopath explanation is that it ignores the large population of stupid sociopaths and smart socially motivated people.
My experience is that smart socially motivated people are often the best employees.
Competence determines the ability to provide value to the company. Work ethic determines whether they'll focus on benefiting the company or themselves.
eg. Competent, lazy salespeople may become your top performers by sabotaging everyone else in the department...yes we had a salesperson like this.
In theory, a well-run company will structure incentives so that competent, lazy people will choose to help the company succeed.
In practice, large organizations rapidly become dysfunctional. One problem is that competent, lazy people tend to be promoted more rapidly than competent, hardworking people...they tend to do things like spend time looking for ways to get promoted.
Unfortunately, when the competent, lazy people end up in charge - things go downhill.

Mike Bird said...

Playing in to this cycle of organizational collapse is, I think, the Peter Principle: that in any system that allows social or economic mobility, the individual will advance to the point of their own incompetence. Basically, if you start out as a focused, level-headed grinder and work hard, in a perfect world you'llr will seek advancement through a lateral hire), and this cycle will continue until a point where you can no longer perform well enough top be tapped for further promotion.

The end result is that in a bizarre way, the fundamental goals of mobility and self-improvement that underlie capitalism promote incompetence and inefficiency, because the worker is either inexperienced and not being used to his or her full potential, or in a position whose responsibilities exceed his or her competence. These people form the core of the "socials" you're talking about, and it's only natural that they expand as a class over time; the longer an organization exists, the more time the grinders have to advance and hit dead ends, after all.

Mike Bird said...

"in a perfect world, you'll be promoted or seek advancement through a lateral hire". Don't know why the original post ate that.