The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”

by Venkat on October 7, 2009

My neighbor introduced me to The Office back in 2005. Since then, I’ve watched every episode of both the British and American versions. I’ve watched the show obsessively because I’ve been unable to figure out what makes it so devastatingly effective, and elevates it so far above the likes of Dilbert and Office Space.

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook

Until now, that is. Now, after four years, I’ve finally figured the show out.  The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore.  The theory begins with Hugh MacLeod’s well-known cartoon, Company Hierarchy (below), and its cornerstone is something I will call The Gervais Principle, which supersedes both the Peter Principle and its successor, The Dilbert Principle. Outside of the comic aisle, the only major and significant works consistent with the Gervais Principle are The Organization Man and Images of Organization.

hughMcLeodCompanyHierarchy

I’ll need to lay just a little bit of groundwork (lest you think this whole post is a riff based on cartoons) before I can get to the principle and my interpretation of The Office. I’ll be basing this entire article on the American version of the show, which is more fully developed than the original British version, though the original is perhaps more satisfyingly bleak. Keep in mind that this is an interpretation of The Office as management science; the truth in the art.  Literary/artistic critics don’t really seem to get it. I’ll have some passing comments to offer on the comedy and art of it all, but this is primarily about the truths revealed by the show, pursued with Dwight-like earnestness.

From The Whyte School to The Gervais Principle

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.  Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological.  So while most 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.

gpbanner

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. I am not making this connection up. Consider this passage from OM:

Of all organization men, the true executive is the one who remains most suspicious of The Organization. If there is one thing that characterizes him, it is a fierce desire to control his own destiny and, deep down, he resents yielding that control to The Organization, no matter how velvety its grip… he wants to dominate, not be dominated…Many people from the great reaches of middle management can become true believers in The Organization…But the most able are not vouchsafed this solace.

Back then, Whyte was extremely pessimistic. He saw signs that in the struggle for dominance between the Sociopaths (whom he admired as the ones actually making the organization effective despite itself) and the middle-management Organization Man, the latter was winning. He was wrong, but not in the way you’d think. 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.

compLifeCycle

A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the sociopaths according to meta-firm logic.

MacLeod’s Loser layer had me puzzled for a long time, because I was interpreting it in cultural terms: the kind of person you call a “loser.” While some may be losers in that sense too, 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. They actually produce, but are not compensated in proportion to the value they create (since their compensation is set by Sociopaths operating under conditions of serious moral hazard). They mortgage their lives away, and hope to die before their money runs out. The good news is that Losers have two ways out, which we’ll get to later: turning Sociopath or turning into bare-minimum performers. The Losers destined for cluelessness do not have a choice.

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 (in Douglas Adams’ vicious history of our planet, humanity was founded by a spaceship full of the Clueless, sent here by scheming Sociopaths). When cast adrift in the open ocean, they are the ones most likely to be utterly destroyed.

Which brings us to our main idea. How both the pyramid and its lifecycle are animated. The dynamics are governed by the Newton’s Law of organizations: the Gervais Principle.

The Gervais Principle and Its Consequences

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.

And in case you are wondering, the unenlightened under-performers get fired.

Let me illustrate the logic and implications of the principle with examples from the show.

The Career of the Clueless

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 Career of the Sociopath

The example of the “fast-track the under-performing” part of the principle is Ryan, the intern. He tests himself quickly and rapidly learns and accepts that he is incompetent as a salesman. But he is a born pragmatist with the drive, ambition, daring and lack of principles to make it to the top.  So rather than waste time trying to get good at sales, he slips into a wait-watch-grab opportunist mode. But he isn’t checked out; he is engaged, but in an experimental way, probing for his opening. The difference between him and the average checked-out Loser is illustrated in one brilliant scene early in his career. He suggests, during a group stacking effort in the warehouse, that they form a bucket brigade to work more efficiently. The minimum-effort Loser Stanley tells him coldly, “this here is a run-out-the-clock situation.” The line could apply to Stanley’s entire life.

Stanley’s response shows both his intelligence and clear-eyed self-awareness of his Loser bargain with the company. He therefore acts according to a mix of self-preservation and minimum-effort coasting instincts. The same is true of everybody else in the Loser layer with the exception of the over-performers: Dwight and Andy (and in his earlier incarnation as a salesperson, Michael).

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.

Ryan’s character displays this path brilliantly. When Michael’s boss and dominatrix-lover Jan suffers a psychotic meltdown, her boss, the uber-sociopath David Wallace, has no great hopes of a good outcome. Setting up yet another band-aid move, he calls up Michael for an interview to take up Jan’s spot. 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.

The Career of the Loser

The career of the Loser is the easiest to understand. Having made a bad bargain, and not marked for either Clueless or Sociopath trajectories, he or she must make the best of a bad situation.  The most rational thing to do is slack off and do the minimum necessary. Doing more would be a Clueless thing to do. Doing less would take the high-energy machinations of the Sociopath, since it sets up self-imposed up-or-out time pressure. 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. Meredith is an alcoholic slut. Oscar, the ironic-token gay character, has his intellectual posturing. Creed, a walking freak-show, marches to the beat of his own obscure different drum (he is the most rationally checked-out of all the losers).

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. More about these two later.

The Emergence of the MacLeod Hierarchy

Dastardly as all this sounds, it is actually pretty efficient, given the inevitability of the MacLeod hierarchy and life cycle. 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. Without it, the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor. On the other hand, the business wouldn’t survive very long without enough people actually thinking in cold, calculating ways. The average-performing , mostly-disengaged Losers  can create diminishing-margins profitability, but not sustainable performance or growth.  You need a steady supply of Sociopaths for that, and you cannot waste time moving them slowly up the ranks, especially since the standard promotion/development path is primarily designed to maneuver the Clueless into position wherever they are needed. The Sociopaths must be freed up as much as possible to actually run the business, with or without official titles.

So Ryan floats directly to the top, where he does what is expected of him — lead a bold strategic gamble by building an online sales channel operation. As with any big strategic move, the operation has its risks, and fails. 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.

The Organization as Psychic Prison

Which brings us to the other major management book that is consistent with the Gervais Principle, Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan’s magisterial study of the metaphors through which we understand organizations. 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, which I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that 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).

This is 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 isn’t entirely a puppet. Buried under layers of denial is a clear understanding of his own, hopeless, powerless life, which makes him marginally more clued-in than say, Dwight. His response is  frenetic and desperate manipulation of the drama of false validation that has been set up for his benefit.  Some of this is with the knowing consent of his enablers.  Like experienced improv-comics, within limits, the rest of the office follows the rule of agreement in the Theater of Michael (in a brilliant piece of meta-commentary, in one episode we get to see Michael at his own impossibly bad worst in his real improv class, where he ruins every single sketch).

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. His is a thin-skinnedness gone crazy. Reality is sealed away with  psychotic urgency, but to do so, he must first scout it out with equal urgency. And so, when Jim (in the first true Sociopath move of his career) engineers a private meeting with the visiting David Wallace to carve out a promotion, Michael tries to crash the meeting. When politely turned away, he instantly switches scripts and pretends he is too busy and that he is the one who can’t attend. And then he sneaks into the meeting room anyway, first with various excuses, and finally by hiding in a Trojan-Horse cheese cart.

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.

Is There More?

You bet. We haven’t even scratched the surface. Dwight, Jim, and Toby each deserve an entire essay. Michael and Ryan probably deserve one each as well, in addition to my quick sketches here. And there are other principles, lemmas and sundry theoretical constructs. But I’ll hold off. Maybe there aren’t as many Office watchers among this blog’s readers as I imagine.  You guys tell me if you want more.

I’ll conclude with one thought: Gervais deserves Nobel prizes in both literature and economics.

otoburb October 7, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Need more. This is really deep (seriously). Love it. Thanks!
Part of my problem has been that I was flagged for the sociopath track (in general terms), but slowly have come to the realization that this seems more and more like the clueless track instead. If you don’t feel comfortable making the cold, ruthless decisions, I’m just kidding myself that I could be an effective sociopath; which only really leaves the C or L layers :)

mansoor October 7, 2009 at 11:18 pm

absolutely BRILLIANT!
more more and then some more please!

Venkat October 8, 2009 at 8:44 am

Thanks Mansoor!

@otoburb Figuring out which of the 3 tracks you are on, a priori, is non-trivial I think. No real person reaches asymptotic perfection in any of the 3 directions, so there is always some doubt… worth exploring in a future post if I have better things to say.

Dan October 8, 2009 at 9:22 am

I feel the same– like we just got started here. I want to keep reading. This is one of my all time favorite ribbonfarm pieces.

Diane F October 8, 2009 at 10:32 am

I’ve never seen “the Office” but I understand everything you have said about the organization. Over time, we seem to bob back and forth between mostly 2 layers; every time ambition and the illusion of entrepreneurship deludes us into trying until a harsh reminder of just how clueless we are hurls us back into the loser strata. There, comfort , relative success and the interests of sociopaths, tug us again along the upward track. The glass ceiling is for those of us without the dominant sociopath gene. Thank you for explaining that intense sense of futility so many of us experience.
” If you were going to be somebody, you would have been somebody by now”- Robert Deniro, Taxi Driver

Venkat October 8, 2009 at 7:08 pm

The inter-level oscillation is interesting. Perhaps those who get into that mode are turning work into a Sisyphean project. Or maybe the sociopaths are merely the lucky Sisyphus types whose rocks miraculously stayed on top of the hill :)

Dominant sociopath gene is one necessary condition probably. Another is possible sheer willingness to work very hard once you are on the path. It is the latter that I sometimes doubt I have.

Anyway, keep the comments coming… am going off for a short vacation, so will be mostly off the grid, but I’ll be catching up with the conversation and responding once I get back in a few days.

Venkat

RG October 9, 2009 at 1:17 am

Brutal and brilliant statement: “They… hope to die before their money runs out.” Using terms from your previous post, they hope to shrink time as they are unable to expand money.

Intrapreneurship offers sociopath roles for some of the (lucky?) clueless.

I think there is a strangely different phenomenon operating in large, stable and long-lived bureacracies: a set of sociopathic clueless controlling the clueless sociopaths, who have succeeded in building too large a clueless layer that has collectively seized control in a non-obvious manner, using labyrinths of obscure processes.

SG November 14, 2009 at 2:29 pm

RG, you are closer to the mark than might be apparent at first glance. I think that what you have described is probably the empirical incarnation of the 3rd stage of the life cycle described above.

I for one can say from experience in a wallowing organization that this is exactly how it plays out before someone comes along and realizes “hey, we can acquire this firm’s core value, fire 85% of the (clueless) employees, and come out on top” which constitutes phase 4…

denny October 9, 2009 at 2:43 am

Absolutely brilliant job of opening up the subject of pathological organization for discussion! I have only watched a few episodes of the shows, but I live in the real world and have lots and lots of corroborating evidence that you are on the right track from that.

Xianhang Zhang October 9, 2009 at 9:41 pm

I wonder what you think about this Netflix internal memo: http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664?src=embed . Is this a cynical ploy from sociopaths dressed up in shiny new clothing? A potentially new way of doing business? An exception that proves the rule? Intrinsically flawed and doomed to failure in the long run? Or something else entirely?

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 4:32 am

My general thought is that any information that can be codified and systematized like the Netflix PPT cannot be part of the information advantage of the sociopath layer. By definition, they figure out where the rules end and learn to operate in the undefined regions beyond.

Bharadwaj October 9, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Delicious.! My first thought : I need to get in touch with my inner sociopath.

This should go into the book you are writing. Loved it.

Manju October 12, 2009 at 2:56 am

Venkat,

This was gripping! I don’t think I still understand the nuances of S, C & L…but at some level it does make sense and you can identify shades of those theories to be prevalent everywhere!

I have no idea where I belong, it could be C or L and definitely not S!! Cold-blooded, ruthless etc are such strong ‘expletives’ that it shudders me!!

An aside; here’s a small one from poet Mukesh Anand, who recently published his book. I forget the entire poem, but this is the mukhda!

NaaDe se aTke hai.N
pajame jaise log
bas baatei.N pakaate rehte hai.N
pajame jaise log

Joe October 13, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Great article, but the first few paragraphs were so stilted with “clueless” banter that I almost stopped reading. Your writing really took off when you got to the meat of the article, and stopped introducing the article.

“The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully-realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore. ”

“The Office is not simple gags attempting to alleviate the despair of low-level grunts. It’s a complete management theory falsifying 83.8% of business books.”

Here’s another example:
“I may be misremembering the exact line.” — I don’t think misremembering is a word, or at best it is an awkward mouthful. The word exact is redundant.

“I may be misquoting the line.” — If you’re quoting we know it is meant to be exact, and if you’re incorrect ‘misquote’ is the appropriate word.

– End Grammar Nazi –

Great article. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t leave a comment at all.

Wing Commander October 14, 2009 at 6:31 am

I say this last sentence lands you squarely at the top of the Sociopath pyramid, on the Clueless, Loser & Sociopath scale.

Gerald Fnord October 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm

So, how do we do better? This question is _not_ a right-wing snark, it is an honest question.

The only thing I can come up with is: people tolerate being led by sociopaths, or by sociopaths and thee clueless, because they fell they can’t do better, or are very afraid of doing worse.

Idolising Continental Europe is, in its own way, as idiotic as Marketolatry, but even so I can’t shake the conviction that we in the States and in Britain, faced with an inadequate dole, are much more afraid of poverty, and so will put up with a lot more than is good for us.

Derek M October 13, 2009 at 11:24 pm

He’s not making an argument for a right, wrong, better or worse. It is a commentary on the organizational makeup in our capitalistic society.

And may I add a bloody brilliant one. I as a “loser” stuck there because of economic conditions can wholeheartedly relate. I can easily pick out which co-workers full into which categorize, which is sadly dominated by as many clueless and losers as predicted. Please more.

BillS October 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm

“So, how do we do better?”

Thinking a more fair and loving socio-economic structure is possible and worth working hard to imagine and thus to create lands you smack in the clueless zone. Yeswecanitalitarianism is it? this is widely considered the most efficient capital distribution structure in history, i remind you.

btw, this is a cartoon-based universe he’s created, but quite amusing for this old lefty to read.

short answer, tune-in, turn-on and drop-out!

denny October 15, 2009 at 2:24 am

“Yeswecanitalitarianism” lol – yes we can do better, but first, you have to wake up to how bad we are doing.

Fink October 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Brilliant… Hope there’s more coming

Management October 14, 2009 at 12:02 am

A slice of jesus toast.

James October 14, 2009 at 12:08 am

Great article but seriously the American version is garbage.

Bonobo October 14, 2009 at 12:36 am

Ahhh, rehashing my entire life before my eyes in one article from good to bad and back again. All the work, companies, dim bulbs and sociopaths roll back through memory.

We choose a train with a positive path, jumping off before derailment to avoid being a loser in a trailer park at age 70.

Making decisions on a moving train always involves careful calculations, though, since you don’t want to land on your head or in a deep chasm, and god forbid you have to jump off at night.

The trick: Holding onto the cash when you bail. The Sociopath “squirrels” his cash away before or upon triggering his exit strategy. The Clueless believe in the latest Oprah Business Book and “my next raise”. The Corporate Loser slogs along with an independent view which may be the most free person of the group if he works steadily to gain financial independence outside the corporation.

Are you owned … or not?

Champeen October 14, 2009 at 12:41 am

Give us more – - this is thoughtful, reasoned commentary.

tinner October 14, 2009 at 1:58 am

Absolutely brilliant. Love The Office although apart from deep investigation of each character – you might as well just enjoy it on a shallow level of similarities between the show and real life. I do prefer your way Venkat – this is astonishing interpretation – thanks.

nabot October 14, 2009 at 2:11 am

I’ve been watching the show from the start and been a bare-minimum loser for a couple years now.

This essay was truelly insightfull. You’ve just put words on a lot of “feelings”.

Thanks a lot.
Need more.

Kevin Smith October 14, 2009 at 2:31 am

This describes the situation of physicians in the Ontario health “care” system over the past twenty years [and the evolution of the medical profession in Ontario] very accurately. Quite amazing!

This is a good academic piece, and needs to be expanded upon.

Thanks to Yves Smith at nakedcapitalism for pointing us to this.

sardaukar October 14, 2009 at 2:49 am

Great article, keep them coming.

ryan October 14, 2009 at 2:53 am

I believe it was Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, not Al Pacino.

None October 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Rao knows that, it is Michael who got it wrong on the show. It is a direct quote from the character on the show.

Read it again:
(at one point Michael goes, “You talking to me?” a line he attributes, in a masterful display of confusion, to “Al Pacino, Raging Bull“).

-jhl- October 14, 2009 at 12:23 pm

it was DeNiro in “taxi driver”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075314/quotes#qt0252592

None October 14, 2009 at 12:59 pm

…and Michael (the character) incorrectly said “You talking to me?” “Al Pacino, Raging Bull” showing off his ignorance (wrong movie, wrong actor in wrong movie).

Derik Pereira October 14, 2009 at 3:52 am

This is an amazing writeup.

I would buy you a whole pot of coffee, even though I usually make my own using a generic store brand. In fact, after reviewing your other write ups, I may give you a case of coffee. All the same, it seems that here (in the US) we generally have coffee machines that take ground coffee beans. When I was in West Africa working on a project this spring I found it somewhat impossible to find ground coffee. In fact, I had to search high and low to buy a coffee machine. Either way, I took a pound of ground coffee with me and was able to watch the African sun rise every morning while drinking a pot of coffee every day.

More recently (years in my case), I have lost any and all interest in watching TV. For reasons I do not seem to know. In fact, I feel somewhat “sick” when I am exposed to TV (visual and sound).

Obviously, I do not live in a cave and have been secularly “blessed” with a spouse unit and kids who watch TV. So, sometimes I do hear some interesting things that I make some subjective (in my mind) judgements and the level of intellectual content of such TV. Maybe, there is much to learn on a “watch” TV once more before I leave the planet.

Finally, I believe you think on some levels that I think. The difference is that you seem to organize and write on levels that I have not been able to reach. It does appear that if I had reached your level (of writing), I may indeed have had some interesting things for other people to read (or hear since I seem to hear when I read). All the same, I do have some interesting things that I have in my mind (that strangely is the only (maybe) place that no earthly thing will never (maybe) be able to infiltrate). There is a book that Marvin Minsky wrote a few years ago called “Society of the Mind”. Now, that is a cool book. My first Marvin book was in college in the 70s and dealt with Artificial Intelligence. I am not sure whether you have run into him or his books and public thoughts.

Finally, finally it seems that you have bridged your working in the “rocket science” and non-working (your writing) in the “people-science” domains. It seems that for me it took 50 years to get there.

I look forward to an interesting journey with your future work!

Thanks for sharing your some of your mind …

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 4:36 am

Yup, I’ve read ‘society of mind’ (or most of it anyway).

African sunrise with coffee. Sounds strangely appealing. Sunrise I mean.

citizen doe October 14, 2009 at 4:00 am

Please, sir, I’d like some more.

OwenFinn October 14, 2009 at 4:31 am

Thank you for this — truly brilliant.

Dave H October 14, 2009 at 4:32 am

Brilliant.

I’ll never forget the night I stumbled upon the office. It was an early show and I wasn’t sure at first if it was parody or earnest.

Horribly I’m inclined to see the system you accurately model as a fairly good one. Unions and socialism seem to be just a power shift toward the losers, with seniority the ultimate expression of losers in charge.

I’m one of the fortunate few who’ve successfully made an independant niche outside that system, as a sole proprietor support business owner.

Mark October 14, 2009 at 5:49 am

Perhaps unions and socialism ultimately follow the same structure — what greater sociopathic gamble is there than to overturn the whole of society in order to come out on top? And, from a sociopathic point of view, how better to deal with the threat of rivals than to create a society based on the idea that Darwinist capitalism has been vanquished (though true sociopaths, I suppose, would never really believe this, their ascent might be delayed). Potential threats can then be portrayed not as challengers to the leaders, but as traitors to the people, which is perhaps more difficult in companies.

Scott October 14, 2009 at 4:57 am

Wonderful article! I really hope you go more in depth into this. Definately will be subscribing!

Chev October 14, 2009 at 5:43 am

Excellent analysis. For those of us in the corporate world, also allows us to turn the focus inward – where do we sit on this pyramid?

-CC

BigBadBank October 14, 2009 at 6:02 am

Great stuff.

Bill G October 14, 2009 at 6:13 am

I realize that “data” is not the plural of “anecdote” but I am moved to comment here because this brilliant article entirely explains my career trajectory. As a younger man I was an over-performing, well-liked loser who was promoted into the ranks of the clueless. Eventually I realized I had made a colossally bad bargain and left my organization to become a contented minimum-effort loser in an organization small enough that sociopathy is pointless–there are no promotions to be had. My nascent ambition held in check by a ceiling that’s pressing down on my head, my economic concerns relieved by achieving a 30% raise when I switched jobs, I find meaning and satisfaction in life through my family, friends and hobbies.

It is perhaps interesting that my escape from cluelessness coincides closely with the birth of my children. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

IMO this economic hypothesis deserves a book-length treatment. But for everyone’s sake get it marketed as humor and not as a “business” book; as Jon Stewart knows, that’s how you rise above the noise and get taken seriously.

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 4:39 am

There is something in the thought about children that seems to require probing… can’t quite put my finger on it though.

rycamor November 14, 2009 at 10:02 am

Having children forces you to grow up, for one thing. Sometimes that forces you to make a more cold-blooded bargain with your career in favor of your family. In other words, stop chasing rainbows and realize that life is more than career.

Vidar Andersen October 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

I love it! Please give us more. I’ll buy you a coffee! :)

Mike October 14, 2009 at 6:35 am

Great post! I’ll drop a few coins in the tip jar when I get home from work.

Lil'D October 14, 2009 at 6:37 am

Wow. I’m going to reread this but it gave me a feeling like being able to see after years of wandering around in the dark.

Josh October 14, 2009 at 6:39 am

Very well written. Please do expand further as you have time, it’s proven to be a very enlightening read.

Wing Commander October 14, 2009 at 6:41 am

I’ll chime in with the majority and agree this analysis very precisely describes the organizations in which I’ve worked over the years. Some were retail, some were media some were higher ed. All of them have similarities. What I find most brilliant is that you identified the over-achieving loser. They aren’t sociopaths the way I would have thought because they get to a certain level and just stay there for a long period of time, and are absolutely necessary for the day to day operations of a department. I’ve occasionally volunteered to be temporarily assigned to positions like that and regretted it after the fact. No, I will not be an over-achieving loser, rather I will cut it right down the middle from here on out.

Vinnie October 14, 2009 at 6:41 am

Extremely interesting, please do go on!

Robert October 14, 2009 at 6:48 am

Very nice. However, I think you miss the point regarding overperforming losers. Many losers realize full well the reality of reorgs, mergers, and layoffs, and know that those who don’t overperform are destined for the trash heap, sooner or later. Sure, corporate loyalty is not absolute, but it is probabilistic. Somebody who works harder is more likely to be retained (assuming they don’t pose a threat to their management). Workers who aren’t sociopathic but want to maximize their employability may wish to remain out of management (to avoid having to fire others or decide their income) and remain overperforming losers to maximize their chance of keeping a job. In tough economic times when jobs are lean only somebody truly clueless, financially independent, or irreplaceable can afford to not overperform (in an effort to become irreplacable). That’s the nature of a rat race.

Kelly October 14, 2009 at 1:20 pm

That’s the nature of the clueless rat race ;)

The true loser would not work to overperform… just to perform enough not to get fired.

Doug October 14, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Robert,
You missed the point, over performing losers are the big losers.
Either they want to be management, and clueless, or they are leaving money on the table.
You are assuming that the Sociopath notices performance. They do not.
Losers are pawns. They are taken off the board or added as needed. They are just lines on a spread sheet or human capital. Spend them, save them, or throw them away, just like real capital.
From the post
“They actually produce, but are not compensated in proportion to the value they create.”
By becoming a bare minimum performer you maximize your personal economic benefit. Being an over performer gives money to the sociopaths.
You have bought into the over performer myth given to you by the sociopaths. Does that make you clueless?

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 4:42 am

This response seems to keep coming up. One part of the answer is that anyone who is actively optimizing at the level of the economy is probably a sociopath. The second is that there has to be an obvious statistical fallacy here. Everybody CAN’T overperform… expectations are set by the best or average (mean/median) and half the people have to underperform the median, right?

Pas B November 6, 2009 at 9:13 am

This thought is still nebulous in my mind, but perhaps you might consider the oft turned phrase “race to the bottom” and what this theory might mean when applied to the organization, particularly how it influences the definition of minimal acceptable performance.

Does the minimum level keep rising because we keep underbidding each other? (More work for less pay, in an effort to secure our positions. Still the minimum effort losers, but bidding for a decreasing number of positions and/or in an increasing population.

Ethan Fischer November 6, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I think the fundamental flaw in the original poster’s argument is the same one that Doug pointed out: sociopaths don’t care about performance. Or at least they don’t care about the performance which the loser is thinking about. Given their mobility between companies, what they really care about is that they look good and have an opportunity to move up.

This suggests that the metric we should look at when evaluating performance is not how productive the employee is, but how productive they are perceived to be. This guarantees an average, since all losers will be compared against their peers.

Steve May 14, 2010 at 11:26 am

“effort to become irreplaceable” … key word there is “effort” … no one is ever irreplaceable in the business world.

Gabri October 18, 2010 at 8:24 pm

even more “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable (irreplaceable) men.” — Charles de Gaulle

jim October 14, 2009 at 7:02 am

You should offer one on one coaching for us loosers. Seriously.

Dan DeLuca October 14, 2009 at 7:05 am

I (foolishly) went to a top-tier business school and (again foolishly) worked for well over a decade at two of the largest banks in the world, as well as a few other organizations, and this is seriously one of the best things I have ever read on management. I wish I had read this 20 years ago!

Joe January 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm

I feel the same way. I have been in management as a professional and I never could figure out why work was not rewarded, and why I suspected that top managment was sociopathic in every organization. This is brilliant…

Barbie October 14, 2009 at 7:05 am

Need more. Much more!!!! Thanks.

John October 14, 2009 at 7:09 am

Fantastically engaging and true. Everyone has played the “which Office character are you?” game, but this takes it to a new level!

Nice — and yes, I want more.

Dustin October 14, 2009 at 7:18 am

I want more! Lemme hear about Toby & Jim!!!

Dave H October 14, 2009 at 7:22 am

To my thinking the interesting thought experiment is “where from here”. I accept your model as predictive and functional, it speaks to my inner cynic, now where from here? How can we/you/I use these insights to improve the model, make better predictions, creat better parody?

Regards

Stephen October 14, 2009 at 7:26 am

Brilliant. Love it, more, much more….please !

Jay Davis October 14, 2009 at 7:36 am

Excellent, insightful commentary. If you are willing to do the work required, I can only imagine everyone who has read this will implore you to continue your work into the other characters.

Matthew T. Grant October 14, 2009 at 7:48 am

Very well written and compelling take on organizational behavior. Also very sympathetic and illuminating view of MacLeod’s otherwise two-dimensional misanthropy. Finally, really like the idea of “capacity for pathological meta-cognition.”

room34 October 14, 2009 at 7:51 am

Excellent, insightful essay. So much of both office culture and “The Office” culture make more sense to me in this context. I look forward to future installments!

Jrp October 14, 2009 at 7:59 am

Fantastic work, would definitely read more. There is a missing (perhaps irrelevant) element in the equation: you forgot about us contractors. We are transient bare-minimum losers, who either move from place to place with the money, or choose the contract-to-hire route with (real or feigned) Clueless ambition.

The transient among us drift from company to company like happy flies in a kennel’s back yard. The money varies wildly, but the freedom makes up for it. Furthermore, the majority of us have one or more tiny business on the side, or are saving up for one risky venture or another.

The other day I attended a meeting to “honor” (patronize) a division manager who has been with the company for twenty years. They gave her a pin. She was beaming with pride. The other contractors and I boggled… if we stay with one company for twenty years, we figure they owe us a house each.

A pin? Really?

M. Pape October 14, 2009 at 8:09 am

Great article! I’m going back through my work history, picking out each of the three types. I’d love to read what you might say about Toby, since your teaser was so effective.

Zach Aysan October 14, 2009 at 8:56 am

Bought you a coffee dude. Let me know when the next one is up please! :D

Just October 14, 2009 at 10:26 am

Excellent post.
I am going to guess that if you do not know what archetype you are most like, then you are probably the Clueless.

First, I’d love to see the follow up articles
Second, one glaring omission is a discussion on the Michael Scott Paper company break when Michael’s ability to maintain the illusion of loyalty broke as well as Idis’s character as the ultimate soicipath. In the negotiations with Wallace Michael Scott gave a glimmer of understanding the sociopath world when he called out Wallace on the BOD meeting.

Matt October 14, 2009 at 10:40 am

Brilliant. I would call it depressingly brilliant but as a self-aware loser I always understood at an instinctive level what you so eloquently describe.
Throw in a few case studies and you could expand this into a book.

s October 14, 2009 at 10:50 am

This is absolutely brilliant!

mother October 14, 2009 at 11:06 am

I really enjoyed the article. Except for the part about wishing to die before running out of money. ;)

Please write about more of the characters.

Travis Cooper October 14, 2009 at 11:14 am

You are dead on. Great to see others forming the same opinions, but you’ve done such a great job articulating what so many of us already know.

Reza October 14, 2009 at 11:15 am

Don’t leave me hanging like that!! That was the most interesting piece of management writing I’ve ever read. You have to write more on “The Office”, if not just for the sake of furthering my cause as a wanna-be sociopath.

Vivek October 14, 2009 at 11:39 am

I’ve known this for a very long time (I’ve been working at a big company for the past 6 years) but I have never seen it so clearly and precisely described.
I just cant tell you how much this post resonated with my own ideas and what I see on a daily basis. And your command of the english language is just unbelievable.
Okay I’ll stop gushing now.

Please do follow up with another piece.

Vivek October 14, 2009 at 11:43 am

Great work. Bought you a coffee too.
(Since I’ve gushed enough in my previous comment, I wont here :)…

Aaron Swartz October 14, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Just incredible — let me know if you post more.

Dylan October 14, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Wow. That was amazing. I will be signing up for email updates on thsi one, something i have never done before on any blog.

GC Seeker October 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

There is also one more type, namely green-card-loser. Ie one who sticks around so that he gets a green card at some point and then leave to become a financially independent sociopath.

One idea that you could write up is how performance reviews, “awards” etc are used to reinforce the farce of the “meritocracy” that the HR division fosters.

Former Gannettoid October 14, 2009 at 12:55 pm

The organization I previously worked for backs up everything you wrote. Brilliant.

Chris H October 14, 2009 at 1:07 pm

I loved this analysis and would definitely want to see more.

There was a job I was working around a year ago that had many people that reminded me of Office characters, but this analysis has helped illuminate some of what were just vague notions of familiarity. I would love to see you expound on the characters individually.

Anonymous Coward October 14, 2009 at 1:08 pm

You the man! Great stuff.

Dave October 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm

That was amazing. Please more, I’d read an entire series. I’ve also never been so happy to consider myself a coasting loser!

Dan October 14, 2009 at 1:23 pm

This has been one of the most interesting and enlightening reads I have encountered in a long time.

Please continue! I am curious as to your insights on Jim, as he is quite puzzling.

Nate October 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Oh yeah…keep this going. I thought we were just getting started when I got to the end.

Dave H October 14, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Definitely possible that the system lampooned here is the best it gets. Certainly seems better than more controlled systems where unions and federal law impose their sensibilities. Hate to think we can’t do just a bit better though…..

I’m a sociapathic wannabe who checked out early and got lucky as an independant.

Cyber Fonic October 14, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Awesome ! I haven’t watched any of “The Office” but your writing about is simple the most enlightened. So much so that I’ll probably want to watch the show now. Anyway! PLEASE write more about it, the stuff, so far, has given me a totally different perspective on the machinations of organisations that I have worked for in the past. Could have really benefited from this article many years ago.

Cheers,

wineshtain October 14, 2009 at 2:32 pm

I sure hope you’re watching Mad Men (and will analyse it too :)

Thanks

Meg October 14, 2009 at 2:43 pm

This was a fantastic article and I applaud your ability to so eloquently convey such a unique and interesting theory!

It has been my experience that losers find the greatest success working in goverment because it is so beholden to preserving the rights of its employees and upholding certain standards (IE you cant pay caseworkers so little that they qualify for foodstamps!) You virtually have a free pass to do the absolute minimum so long as you are adhering to the code of conduct! The clueless exist but most realize how long it takes to get absolutely nowhere by following the career ladder. The Sociopaths are also present but, fortunately, they need not resort to “cold calculation” to further their sucess b/c the organization has been so thoroughly established it affords little room for innovative ideas. For the losers, success comes simply from embacing the ability to maximize your income while preserving your benefits by maneuvering between various divisions and departments. Thus far, its worked like a charm for a loser like myself!

Please, please do another installment! As a fan of the Office, I enjoyed this article on an entertaiment level, as a Sociologist on an academic level and as a participant in the business world, a personal level.

You’re correct in that Jim is not so difficult to figure out but what is the deal with Toby?!

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Interesting that you bring up government. All this logic is upended in the world of government, and another Brit show, Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister provides a lot of the reasons why. In government, the sociopaths are in the middle, the clueless at the top, and the losers (as before) at the bottom.

But that’s another line of thought entirely.

Toby: coming up.

Heather October 14, 2009 at 2:54 pm

This is fantastic! I just finished watching all of the episodes of the Office and I couldn’t quite place why when I was a student I didn’t quite enjoy it, but I respond to it much more now that I’m a working stiff. Obviously, this is due to my new life in the corporate world.

Thanks for this!

Chris October 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm

I want more! Put on a podcast and interview the writers and/or Gervaise himself and/or others who study similar patterns.

Best-

Helga October 14, 2009 at 3:47 pm

This is *absolutely* worth a coffee. :-) Keep it coming!

cyanbane October 14, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Brilliant. A Coffee on me for sure.

Keen October 14, 2009 at 5:52 pm

As a working stiff sociopath you should buy me a coffee for reviewing your treatise, unless I’m clueless in which case I think you must be using some kind of polite suggestion to befriend me in which case you should buy the coffee, unless I’m a loser in which case I have less than you and so coffee should be on you.

PrettySneakySis October 14, 2009 at 8:36 pm

I have been lying awake at night, trying to figure out why I work so hard and feel like a hamster on a wheel. You helped me to arrive at the answer – I am an over-performing loser. I need to become more like Stanley/Kevin and less like Andy. So it’s back to the Sudoku and my cover band! And less time at the office. Thank you! I think you saved me from reaching for the quick solution of anti-depressants.
P.S. Coffee’s on me – enjoy!

Emlyn October 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Brilliant model, love it. (Underperforming loser here)

One niggle: You say the clueless layer is there to separate the sociopaths from the losers, because “Without it, the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor”. This is kind of a vague reason.

I suggest that Marx can help here; straighforwardly, the sociopaths are alienating the losers from their production. That’s the entire point of the enterprise, after all. The sociopaths are rounding up a lot of other people, getting them to do stuff, and taking the majority of the results for themselves.

So, the clueless buffer is a great invention in this light. Imagine how crappy it must have been for the early sociopaths, before they figured that out?

Other than that, fabulous.

cutley26 October 14, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Excellent work, I think that I have spent far too much time on each end of the loser spectrum. Although I have been pro-actively making plans to jump to sociopath.

I definitely vote for more profiles. Thanks.

jodie odie October 14, 2009 at 10:38 pm

thanks. your writing made my day.

Jason Berberich October 15, 2009 at 7:42 am

Great insights. I’ve never seen anyone dissect The Office from your angle, and I find it really thought-provoking.

I hope you do dive deeper into each of the characters you listed. There’s a ton of material wrapped up in each one.

CR October 15, 2009 at 9:18 am

Who is John Galt?

Jarratt October 15, 2009 at 9:22 am

You could probably write a blog solely on the topic of analyzing the sociopathic and clueless nature of corporations and large organizations in general.

It’s been said a lot, but this was a really amazing read. Bravo.

fogus October 15, 2009 at 10:20 am

Great essay. I’ve been keeping a dictionary over the years of the inhabitants of an IT ecology, but I might just rename it to “A Parade of Losers”. Keep it up please.

http://fogus.me/static/it-ecology/

-m

dave October 15, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Hello;

Thank you for enlightening the experience we all had but didn’t sit down and recognize. I guess something good comes from TV. I have one question: wouldn’t the sociopaths on their own form a pyramid when they get to such lofty heights? There are those destined for CEO/president and those just relegated to sociopath loser / sociopath clueless status in the command and control dimension. Perhaps they flit from company to company if they think they can’t get the head job? If the sociopath’s layer was a microcosm of your pyramid, then wouldn’t every level be the same- each one a mini-pyramid? I guess that is what you are saying, but then the drawing and the description differ.

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I’d conjecture that a company comprising solely of sociopaths is called a law firm or management consulting firm :)

Dan G. October 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm

I once attended a lecture by famous French logician Jean-Yves Girard, who is famous for his idiosyncratic, often rude remarks. He said that there are two kinds of logicians: bureaucrats and small-time crooks. This can be easily and accurately extended to all academics and matches with your clueless/sociopathic dychotomy in the office setting. I am currently an academic, but I worked for several years for a multinational corporation as well, so I have a personal acquaintance with both systems. A similar split I guess you have in churches as well, with the ultimately sociopathic guru/messiah controlling the self-deluded true believers. It is a fairly universal yin-yang-like division.

Your third category though doesn’t make sense. There are no ‘losers’ as a category. Your ‘losers’ are either sociopathic or clueless in nature. They are at the bottom of the pyramid, but being at the bottom of the pyramid is contingent on all sorts of circumstances and not only on predisposition. The difference is that the sociopathic-loser (and I use ‘loser’ to mean simply ‘at the bottom of the pyramid’ not a predisposition) has a tendency for a high-risk high-reward strategy whereas the clueless-loser will prefer a low-risk low-reward approach. This is why you eventually end up with more sociopaths at the very top and more clueless in the middle; but you will find plenty of sociopaths in the middle (on their way up or on their way down depending on whether their gambles pay off or not) and perhaps even some clueless at the top.

The sociopath is the archetypal Man whereas the clueless is the archetypal Woman. This is why you will find more men/sociopaths who are geniuses but also more who are idiots; more who are billionaires but also more who are destitute; more who are artists but also more who are criminals. This stratification is all simply a consequence of a preference for risk/reward versus safety.

I also disagree in part with the connotation of the ‘sociopath’ and ‘clueless’ labels. People who show integrity and dedication for their work, interest in the object of their activity rather than the social framework in which their work happens automatically fall under the ‘clueless’ label in your taxonomy. I think this is more than a little silly. I’d like something more neutral. For ‘sociopaths’ I would use ‘players’ because for them the activity they pursue is simply a means to a socially motivated game with an external payoff (money, power). For ‘clueless’ I would use ‘believer’, because they think the object of what they do matters, so the payoff is intrinsic and not gamelike.

This belief can be delusion, of course, but not necessarily. It is a commentary on the state of things in the modern workplace that belief is equated with self-delusion, and perhaps rightly so. But it is not universal, I think. In my work, as an academic (teaching and research) I have belief in the intrinsic importance of what I do, I choose not to be a careeristic ‘player’ although I easily could be, I choose to have integrity and I find massive satisfaction in what I do. I’d like to believe that there are also companies where the ‘believers’ are not actually deluded. Google? Honda? I don’t really know.

I would further argue that the player/believer split is the primordial one and it leads to a preference for high risk/low risk behaviour. Both players and believers will seek satisfaction in their activity, and the only way they can derive satisfaction leads to high-risk behaviour for the player. Because the ultimate payoff for the player is not the money or the power but the buzz — this is why the Warren Buffetts of the world are still in the game. And because the buzz, like any addiction, grows less intense in time because of tolerance, and because a bigger buzz ultimately requires a higher risk. On the other hand, the believer finds satisfaction in the actual activity that they pursue. Risk is not just avoided but simply unnecessary. The result of the activity is the payoff. And that activity is not a game.

Venkat October 15, 2009 at 7:46 pm

It is pretty clear that we differ at the level of basic philosophical commitments. I do think the ‘clueless’ is a primitive independent type, but we disagree at a much more basic level, so there isn’t much point debating that!

Your gendered male/female thing is very tempting and has tempted me before. I am skeptical of the position though, but am not going to touch that can of worms with a 10-foot pole.

I like the Girard typology of logicians though :)

Dan G. October 16, 2009 at 12:36 am

If you mean ‘debating’ in the usual American sense, i.e. picking nits and gotchas then there never is any point in debating anything. But if by ‘debating’ you mean trying to seek which one of us is right on what points, then of course we must debate.

I am reading through the comments posted by your readers and I am frightened by the reaction. A substantial number of them believe now that sociopathic behaviour is the ticket out of loserdom. This is not only morally reprehensible but also false. It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see that at the bottom of society we find a great deal of sociopaths (players in my terminology) whose scheming didn’t work out. So if you are not going to debate me on this point, if you are very convinced that loserdom is a predestination and a predisposition, then at least let me send a message to all the wannabe sociopath/players out there (who happen to read this comment).

There is more room for happiness and satisfaction in being a believer (‘clueless’) than a player (‘sociopath’). Life for those who find value in what they are doing and get satisfaction out of it can be happy, fulfilled and peaceful. All they need to do is find their true interest and vocation — their true belief, not a delusion. The life of the player-sociopath is bound to be a constant war; and because it is a competition, satisfaction and success are not under their own self-control. It is contingent on the failure of the other player-sociopaths with whom they need to compete. It is ultimately foolish to make your own hapiness contingent on the payoff of a zero-sum game.

I will grant one exception. I will forgive and understand the loser-believer/clueless who is terminally disappointed by seeking their true calling and failing, who is made jaded by life in a society that is so corrupt that there is no more room for the believer other than as an object of exploitation. This is the context in which The Office happens. But, as I said, it is not and must be not universal.

From the point of view of society as a whole, praising sociopathy is a disaster. A society of believers will always thrive and progress; it will be the Utopia. A society of players will stagnate and self-distruct; it will be a Mad-Max style, pre-Hobbesian Dystopia. It is a ‘tragedy of the commons’ type of game played out on a societal scale. So, my dear reader, please don’t give up hope. If you are still a believer, be strong and stay a believer even though for now you are a bottom-of-the-heap loser and the player-sociopaths are wriggling their ways to the top of the heap. Don’t play the game.

Vivek November 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Dan your central thesis seems to be that the “believer” can and should create happiness by inventing that concept in his own thinking. And your saying thats good enough?

Everyone wants to earn enough money to be able to look after himself and his family for life. To be able to do that I dont think you can go any other way except for being a sociopath or player.

Creating a happiness based on all the concepts of “hard work” and the “purity of work” while your family isnt cared for is false in any given context.

Wake up!

JB November 6, 2009 at 9:09 am

Crap, Sneaky Sis stole my line. I too would like to buy a coffee to both of you. I feel like I am at a tennis match agreeing with alternating sides of debate.

It is clear that Dan G. is a proud believer and Vivek seems to identify more with the sociopath. A sociopathic life will certainly lead to more excitement/buzz and the opportunity for excess of money. I think a believer would be happier and more self-actualized.

Dan G November 18, 2009 at 2:41 am

Vivek, my central thesis is different: Sometimes you can be lucky enough to find yourself in a career where being a believer does not mean being clueless but clued-in, and loserdom comes on the tails of incompetence rather than as a result of calculation. It is true that there is always a vulnerability to player/sociopath infiltration, and it is perhaps as a result of a proliferation of the player/sociopath type that some believers remain stuck in a lost reality (the clueless) and some other believers understand and accept what is going on and withdraw into self-imposed loserdom.

The typology you describe is valid in a /corrupt/ organisation and you seem to believe quite strongly that an organisation must be corrupt somehow by definition. That is not the case. I experienced both kinds in my career so no need to try to argue that is not possible. It is. I guess you are stuck in a rather corrupt organisation now (huge corporations tend to be so, indeed) hence the inability to contemplate anything different.

James T Kirk November 20, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I think you misunderstood Dan. You seem to assume that everybody hates their job and needs to delude themselves into believing otherwise – that’s false.

Brian December 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

The male/female = sociopath/clueless parallel is bogus. Female powertalk is full of “we are all working together” while male powertalk is full of “I lead/you follow” or “you lead/I follow.” Both assume a style of organization, and reinforce that style.

Googler July 7, 2010 at 2:16 am

If you think that people who work at Google aren’t deluded then you need to take a good hard look at what makes Google successful and why their employees work so hard for that company… I will give you a hint: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

PrettySneakySis October 15, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Dan G., of the last post: Can I buy you a coffe too? :)

Jeremy October 15, 2009 at 3:52 pm

You should connect with the General Counsel of Manpower. See this post on his blog:

http://manpowerblogs.com/toth/2009/10/15/mandatory-training-tonight-24/

David Klemke October 15, 2009 at 8:34 pm

As someone who’s just identified himself as a sociopath thanks to your insightful writings I would hope that you’d continue to write more on this subject.

There’s nothing like being lightly entertained whilst being educated :)

Andy October 16, 2009 at 2:26 am

Are you familiar with the work of Barry Oshry? He uses a systems approach to organizations, and describes the dynamics between (and challenges of) the three types, which he labels Tops, Middles, and Bottoms. I first ran across him in an article in Fast Company ( http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/10/camp.html?page=0%2C0 ) and in a number of books, particularly Seeing Systems ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1576754553/ref=s9_simz_gw_s0_p14_t1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1RTVR101RX6BA59BBPXT&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846 )

Guillaume Theoret October 16, 2009 at 7:06 am

I would love to read any extra articles you’d write on Dwight, Jim, Toby, Michael or Ryan, though I think I’d be especially interested in the Toby article. This was great, thanks!

Phil October 16, 2009 at 10:12 am

The Office (UK) is pretty much a one-trick-pony. Funny though it is, it relies on an unnatural and unreal reaction to Brent’s behavior.

In real life, people react differently to the way they do in The Office – they are more polite and might laugh politely at his “jokes”. In The Office, the reaction is deadpan, adding to the cringe and embarrassment.

Ted October 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

Very clever essay, as long as it’s kept in mind 2 things. First, the Office is like all humor, it relies on exaggeration to make things funny. Thus, your essay has to be read in this context also – as it’s based on exaggeration, it is itself exaggerated.
Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that of all the people described in the essay, the only truly competent ones are the sociopaths at the top, and the low-performing losers at the bottom. Thus, you should be seeing a lot of lateral moving of these types – which you do in real life. The low-performing losers have no control if the org lives or dies, as a result when orgs die, they get dumped on the job market. However, unlike the high-performaing losers or the clueless, I think you will find the low-performing losers are the ones that almost immediately get replacement jobs – and it’s a lot more common than you think for a low-performing loser in a collapsing org to successfully transition to a sociopath role in another org.

A couple errors in the thesis, though. First, in real life there’s a lot less promoting within orgs than your implying here. Sociopaths have found that promoting people creates a lot of unintended side-effects. It’s a lot more common today for sociopaths to either simply fire the ambitious losers, or stick them in dead-end environments that cause them to quit. I’ve personally had both types of terminations happen to me, and getting fired from the one job, and quitting the other, were the best things to happen to me – both times they applied jumper cables to my career that was otherwise stalled. Years later I realized in those situations that the sociopaths running those orgs were fully aware of what they were doing, and in actuality were trying to help me. It may seem odd to be helping an employee by firing them, but I’ve played the sociopath role in orgs and I now know it to be true – as you say, the pyramid narrows at the top, and if I have a young, ambitious, intelligent employee, and absolutely no room for them higher-up in the org, I know that they will get a better deal elsewhere. If I can push them out of the nest, they will benefit – and I’ve done it and seen it happen.

Another error your making is that of implication – your implying that financial compensation tracks the pyramid. In reality it does not – there’s low-paid sociopaths running orgs out there, and highly-paid low-performing losers.

Lastly, many large orgs are very familiar with what you call the MacLeod Lifecycle of the firm, and have structured themselves to avoid it. This is why, for example, the CocaCola company has so many different flavors of soft drinks they sell besides Coke. They know that in the last analysis they have no real control over changes in taste preference among the public, and that outside influences they have no control over can cause the public to shift to a different preferred taste – so they maintain these underperforming lines in case that happens. Nobody predicted the shift to plain water, for example.

Jason November 5, 2009 at 10:31 am

Most logical response so far. I totally agree with you.

Randy October 16, 2009 at 11:55 am

I think you really have an innovative business book here. You should change the labels for the three groups. And I think you really have more than three groups. But the dilemma and different ways of coping with it is a brilliant insight.

Keep up the good owrk.

Alex October 16, 2009 at 11:59 am

Brilliant. Please write more. Maybe something about business “self-help” books (In Search of Excellence, 7 Habits, etc.) and other materials aimed at furthering the illusions of the Clueless.

howie October 16, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Young Mr. Rao: you are clever and smooth in your insights. I like them very very much. I sense you had a univ. educ’n, wherein there must have been some equally clever and snaky teachers in the po-mo subjects. You imbibed those tepid themes but have seen thru and past them brilliantly (your cardinal virtue). I would like to see you really analyze the ak-ak-ak… (can hardly say it) ak-A-demy. Looking forward to more of whatever one calls what it is you do… signed, “A meta-fan” (Which might be glossed as a breeze that blows from, or at, the behind.) CHeers.

khappucino October 17, 2009 at 8:42 am

That was brilliant.

Greg October 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm

This is brilliant and I really, really hope you write more

Adam October 18, 2009 at 7:41 am

Great read, Venkatesh. And a great final comment, Dan G.

Keep it going…

Josh W October 19, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Interesting! One thing you might be interested in is the “triage” model by Stafford Beer, which is similar to this, (but with differences obviously):

The central layer is there to glue the structure together, by pushing the problem of adaption down to the bottom layer: The people at the top will make mistakes, because they are too sociopathic to truly understand the organisation they are running, and the job of the second layer is to push the requirement of dealing with those problems down to the bottom. They do this by claiming that these things are universal problems to be adapted to, either out of misplaced idealisation of the sociopaths and their structure or misplaced identification with them; “one day that will be me”.

Another important part of their job is to cajole and encourage those dealing with the nonsense of the poor decisions to “deal with it”, just sufficiently to get on with their job, but by encouraging them to take the same idealistic but conflicted attitude that they hold.

Now here’s where the two models seem to diverge: Stafford Beer’s model (mainly out of pessimism) suggests that the bottom layer will be pushed into total desperation, and yet somehow stay there, without massive external or internal change. Whereas your system recognises that the bottom layer still needs to be functioning, and can’t totally descend into crapness.

So how does the system keep going? Well periodically the top decision-making levels are refreshed by someone who actually has a clue about what the company is supposed to be doing. Note that they are not the person who has the most idea of what changes should be done, they are someone who has enough of an idea while still retaining the ruthlessness that will allow the structure to continue. They sit on the bottom level getting experience of how stupid stuff is, only to be catapulted to the top by one simple criterion “tough choices that get results”, that is “working but still sociopathic business strategies”.

Now sometimes this goes wrong, with what I call a “Gorbachev moment”, which fits surprisingly well into your system; someone is promoted accidentally purely for insight (as not even the sociopaths realise totally what they are doing) and beings with him a concern for those people at the bottom level, and causes the oppressive structure to collapse. This doesn’t mean the _company_ has to collapse, but the dangerous combination of empowering the loosers and disillusioning the clueless about their previously held “positions” means the basic organisation of the company is wrecked, and their own ideas have to be good enough to replace it. And since they are not pre-prepared for this eventuality they usually just blow up the company, as a variant on the other life cycle.

Simon October 20, 2009 at 3:54 am

Beautifully put sir!
Keep up the good work

Neerja October 23, 2009 at 11:14 am

This is a brilliant post! I’d love to read those essays on Michael, Dwight, Jim, Toby and anyone else- so please post them. I wasn’t as big a fan of the Office before I read your blog, as I am now. Being a big fan of Dilbert, I was taken aback when I read your opening paragraph about how the Office works better than the former- but yu have convinced me. I think the most interesting part is the underlying principle which you have no doubt seen all around. Do keep these posts coming, for the losers and clueless milling around:)

Yet Another Loser October 24, 2009 at 10:15 am

Brilliant post. It might not be a one-line blurb that the “clueless” might like to use in intellectual discussion but I feel it is a nuanced analysis of the organization without getting overly academic. I personally love the appellations of loser/sociopath/clueless though I don’t know how the humorless masses with take it.
A fun and though-provoking read, Ill be coming back for more :

Chuck October 27, 2009 at 10:42 am

I’ve forwarded your post to several people and usually get the same response. “This is funny but true which makes it sad.” and “I’m an overcompensating loser :(“

Venkat October 27, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Well, I’ll count all that as further experimental validation of the thesis. The best humor always comes with a dessert of melancholy in my opinion :S

gareth October 28, 2009 at 2:41 am

Fantastic article. Could have done with less introductory material – the analysis in the last half spoke for itself. Indeed, I got bogged down so much at the beginning that I nearly gave up … which would have been sad as the latter half is exceptionally incisive. Makes me really apppreciate the script writers and the actors, too.

TC October 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Directed here from Reddit. Brilliant article. Looking forward to more.

Socioclueless October 29, 2009 at 3:59 pm

A breath of fresh air… your theory is – in places – too good to be false. Will buy The Office to see if they are as congruent as your commentary. If so, they deserve cult status.
As to your construct, it is so intellectually appealing, you should consider making it into an alternative management theory.

khappucino November 9, 2009 at 10:43 am

Venkat, This is a fantastic example of realist analysis without injecting a value judgement. Most people view this sort of discussion through a (good/bad value) lens…. which distorts the message. Great Job and keep them coming.

Ray Huang November 11, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Awesome blog/essay. I think you hit it on the nose. Never before have I’ve never wanted to become a sociopath more than I do now. Brilliant!

jb November 14, 2009 at 2:55 am

beautiful work. Ive never watched The Office, but have lived it. As a happy tech-industry slacker-loser of long standing (15 years with a company that ive been with since i was one of three employees), and a long time interested observer-from-the-sidelines – your writings here bring a big smile to my dial. I am on my way out of tech (via the creative-artistic route, funded by the Bargain – with both myself and the sociopaths fully aware of this and acting in a symbiotic fashion) and watching this stuff unfold is better than TV.

more, more and more!

Stranger On Calm November 14, 2009 at 9:52 am

I’m wondering how the Michael/Daryl meeting (regarding Daryl’s payraise request) might have played out if Michael were a sociopath.

I imagine it playing out like this (in individual steps, with Michael’s underlying message(s) to Daryl following in parentheses):

Step A: Daryl comes up to the 2nd floor to meet with Michael at a scheduled time.

(Michael’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Michael’s time is important…meetings with him must be set up in advance. (2) This is to be a formal interaction…any buddy-buddy, personal dynamics that exist between Michael and Daryl at other times will not be in play during this meeting.)

Step B: Michael makes Daryl wait 5/10/15 minutes (past the scheduled time) outside Michael’s office.

(Michael’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Daryl’s issue, while important to Daryl, is just one of many (important) things that Michael has to attend to during a typical, busy day. (2) (following 1) Daryl’s issue is not the most important issue of the day for Michael, and this meeting can be interrupted at any time.)

Step C: Once Daryl is invited into Michael’s office, Michael says “Daryl, I’m extremely busy today. I’ve only got a few minutes. What’s on your mind?”

(Micheal’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) re-iterates message(s) communicated in Step B (that Daryl’s issue is not very important to Michael). (2) By giving Daryl a time constraint, it forces Daryl to “talk first,” which is one of Michael’s goals (based on the wikipedia tactics list [Technically, Michael is speaking first; however, I am interpreting the "refuse to speak first" tactic to mean "refuse to speak first about the topic at hand," in which case, Michael is playing legally since his words are simply setting boundary conditions on the discussion. In fact, now that I think about it, Michael would have his secretary (is it still Pam at this time?) say to Daryl (as she, at last, leads him into Micheal's office) "I'm sorry, Daryl, Michael is extremely busy today, he only has a few minutes." In this way, Michael does not have to speak first...Daryl knows there is a time limit and that he must get his arguments out in the open quickly.]).)

Step D: Once Daryl has outlined his case, Michael says “Daryl, those are valid points and I understand where you’re coming from…but things are tight right now…I can’t promise anything. But, I’ll talk with Accounting/HR/Corporate and we’ll see if there’s anything we can do for you. Thank you for coming in today.” Michael then buzzes his secretary on the intercom and asks her to go ahead and put that call through that she’s had on hold during the meeting. Daryl stands up and leaves Michael’s office.

(Micheal’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Michael is taking the time to listen to Daryl…He hears Daryl and he validates Daryl. (2) There is a much bigger picture involved here than just Daryl’s world. While Daryl’s arguments for a raise make sense from Daryl’s point of view, the company is a large organization, and all matters of pay must go through a standard process. (3) Michael is very busy, and now that Daryl has communicated his wishes, Michael needs to get back to important matters.

Stranger On Calm November 14, 2009 at 10:37 am

Sorry…that last post was supposed to be in the Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk thread.

thedancingmachine November 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I enjoyed the read (first-time reader) although being a lifetime low-level grunt and loving it I didn’t understand all the words and as usual was to lazy to look them up. I enjoyed that you didn’t appear to be talking down to anyone which is not common among gifted people. Looking forward to reading more of your posts (past and future).

OGRE November 15, 2009 at 11:39 am

Brilliant analysis. I look forward to reading your other works.

Sean M November 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Venkat, you’re a champ, love your work. Looking forward to the next installment/book release. Have you found a publisher yet? Has Ricky agreed to write the foward??

re Dan G and other academic non-nitpicking debaters (?) – holding things up with verbose specificity no doubt helps you and your fellow committee members arrive at an indecision sooner but the rest of us find it glaringly dull. This is a blog not a bog.

Dan G. November 17, 2009 at 11:57 am

Thanks Sean for your tl;dr insights. They make scarcely any sense but they are amusing. Well done.

Sean M November 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm

No, thank you, Dan G.

That means a lot to me because I am, in fact, a comedy writer. I’m working on a motivational/self-help piece called “Failing To Suceed” and the above article covers similar terrain, albiet from a broader perspective.

This blog was recommended to me by a friend that works in it (or as he likes to say, “I.T.”) who thought that I, as a dedicated student of The Office, might be interested and I just assumed that Venkat was a comedy writer – no offence, Venkat, but you do have a certain style – and to be frank, Dan, I thought you were some kind of math junkie turned comedy hack heckling for the sake of it.

But now, in the sober light of day, it occurs to me that most people on this site seem to be looking for something more than just a few good laughs. And judging by many of these comments, they’ve found what they’re looking for.

So thanks again for your understanding and the kind words of encouragement.

I’ll leave you to get on with your discourse and be content to follow from afar.

Peace.

B November 20, 2009 at 12:24 am

Win.

Jason Sares November 16, 2009 at 11:12 pm

BTW his name is spelled Darryl not Daryl

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darryl_Philbin

H. November 17, 2009 at 10:56 pm

You could have done without portraying the character of Oscar — who has a steady boyfriend — as someone whose “active gay lifestyle” is his main form of distraction. I can’t recall a single episode where that’s revealed to be the case.

Meredith is the only character whose loose sexuality is a major part of her lifestyle. However, the word “slut” in your description of her is unnecessary. I stopped reading there. If you want to be taken seriously, use serious language.

Venkat November 18, 2009 at 5:23 am

Update, 2012: I modified the bit about Oscar to reflect this comment discussion and his character as it evolved since I wrote the post.

I am not concerned about my language since it suits the level at which I intended to present the ideas, but you are partly right about the accuracy here. Mea culpa.

I think we agree that my characterization of Meredith is accurate, modulo language. You are right though, that Oscar’s character (unlike say, Jack on Will and Grace) is not driven by his being gay. While the few plots with an active role for him DO center on his being the token gay character, his character does not revolve around his being gay.

The problem is that without that, his character doesn’t have any depth on the show at all, except for a mild fastidiousness with budgets. So perhaps I can be forgiven for not reading anything more than “gay” in his character because the writers didn’t write any more into it.

Or maybe he is supposed to be ironically-tokenized, so Michael can say things like “your gayness does not define you, your Mexican-ness does.”

Food for thought though.

Venkat

ElCoronel February 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

I would say Oscar definitely exists solely to be ‘ironically-tokenized’ as do most of the characters that sit in that back corner. They have had some development over the run of the show but I suspect mostly to provide new fodder to tell the stories of Michael and Jim.

Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother November 18, 2009 at 5:02 pm

This is brilliant. For the people trying to figure out which track they’re on, there’s a rule of thumb you can borrow from poker: At any high-stakes game there’s sure to be at least one sucker. If don’t know who it is, it’s you.

Chad November 21, 2009 at 12:51 am

Loved it. Finally an explanation for my disjointed CV (short stints selling enterprise software for vc-backed start ups in between my own eBiz start ups)

Curtis November 21, 2009 at 6:25 am

A great read! Loved the insight. Please keep it going.
It’s interesting to read through the comments and pick out who falls into which category.
Seems to me that S & L’s generally, readily identify themselves while the C’s aren’t able to do so as easily.

bob November 21, 2009 at 4:48 pm

I’ve never seen the office, but I enjoyed your analysis of organizational communication.

Sumana Harihareswara November 22, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Thought-provoking stuff, as you’re already aware.

My understanding is that David Simon specifically developed “The Wire” as an argument against loyalty to institutions:

“["The Wire" is] sort of a visual novel. We knew exactly what we wanted to say about the bureaucratic aspects of the drug war. It is about what happens in this land of ours when product ceases to matter, when the institutions themselves become predominant over their purpose. Pick up the paper: You take a job, you go down to Houston, you move your family there, you find out they gutted the company and stole your pension. It’s like whatever you believe in, whatever you commit to that’s larger than you or your family, will somehow find a way to fuck you.”

Loyalty to an organization? Identifying with an organization? For a fairly smart hard worker, who actually believes in the stated goals of the organization, it’s fairly seductive, especially if they conflates their specific subcommunity with the institution as a whole. They’re dismayed when they see “politics,” which is when someone else puts personal status ahead of the organization’s mission, even sabotaging useful work to gain or keep relative status.

Have you read Peter Watts’s work, such as Blindsight? You might enjoy his slideshow on sociopathy in vampires.

Anthony November 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Hi, Venkat. I’m just half-way through reading this fascinating, insightful, alarming blogpost. (Work won’t ever be the same again.)

I just wanted to point out that it should be “Comparing Michael *WITH* his exiting sociopath peer” (rather than “Comparing Michael *to* his…” — which means almost the exact opposite).

Yeah, I’m a coasting Loser pedant. So fire me.

Ian Luke Kane December 1, 2009 at 9:41 am

Absolutely fantastic thinking. I’d like to hear your further thoughts on Toby, especially.

Daff December 22, 2009 at 10:25 pm

More, please.

Morgan January 1, 2010 at 7:16 am

Great stuff!!

tV January 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Nice. Connected & commented here _

http://fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org/?p=305

simplistic thoughts January 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I love the diagram. I would guess that each level sees the others as those titles.

ElCoronel February 3, 2010 at 9:22 am

Impatiently waiting for more… I’ve shared this blog with a ton of my non-clueless friends and we must have more of this The Office analysis soon!

Johannes March 16, 2010 at 7:16 am

Absolutly brilliant. I’ve allways dismissed the american version but i’ll probably have a look. Gervais is a genious and after this post, so are you, kindof. Thanks.

AnEducatedNegro March 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm

you said you were going to come back to Toby and Jim and then said you weren’t! oh the agony! or are you just trying to find the losers. ahh good ploy mr venkat…

Venkat March 23, 2010 at 4:48 am

Patience, patience. I do have a full-time job :) Promises shall be kept.

Venkat.

ac March 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm

really incredible piece… I sit at my desk and genuinely ponder my fate…

nabot March 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I just thought about applying this to politics, to the corporate state. Were there is no (easy) bankruptcy. What happens when the sociopaths, overwelmed by the clueless and not being able to keep the losers productive enough, go away for their brighter future in a less public industry ? Of course show must go on. But what happens to the newly promoted clueless when they can’t mimic getting the job done.
It’s kind of an inverted dilbert, driven by the sociopaths not being attracted to their positions anymore.

Is it possible ?
Is it happening ?
Because I’m french, and I really wonder if our president being a clueless is only bad luck.

(and once again, bravo and more please. I need to improve my gamer talk.)

Ashley April 21, 2010 at 10:07 am

Toby is definitely one of the more fascinating characters. I second the notion to write an essay on him. His monotone voice and his perpetual state of depression make watching him akin to watching a snail leave a goopy trail–very uneventful. I am not sure whether he is a loser or clueless, but much too soft to be a sociopath.

Steve May 14, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Brilliant! Yes, as others have said before me, your analysis of Toby is long overdue. I’ve always seen him as kind of a tragic anti-hero, one of the few sympathetic characters in the show. Maybe it’s just because I’m an over-performing loser aspiring to the clueless ranks, or maybe it’s because I’ve spent a few years working in HR, but he always strikes me as a fish out of water. He’s the archetypal outsider tasked with reigning in chaos, yet utterly dumbfounded by the level of irrationality he confronts. As you said, he’s smart enough to recognize the ineffectualness of his role, and cynical enough to maintain a certain dispassionate distance from the freak show around him. I’d love to hear your take on his role as the on-premises HR rep. :)

PLEASUREMAN May 24, 2010 at 6:50 am
Dave July 7, 2010 at 7:37 am

The primary purpose of the Clueless is not to be a stable of potential fall guys, that’s just an added benefit. They serve as a layer of abstraction between the source of an organization’s income and the Loser’s constant and rationed paycheck.

The Clueless think that they can achieve success by maximizing the metric they are presented with – their laundered paycheck. The nascent Sociopath sees that the paycheck is an abstraction, and makes a decision to break through it as quickly as possible.

Velan July 14, 2010 at 4:57 am

Utterly brilliant!!

tubelite July 20, 2010 at 8:03 pm

[This has been on the backburner for months; long enough. Out, damned post, out I say! ]

I have two bones to pick with your excellent thesis. First, that “losers” have struck a bad economic bargain by not doing the whole capitalistic striving. I presume the whole characterization is tongue-in-cheek, but let me rise to the defense of my fellow losers anyway: People superficially look the same, so one may easily lump them in the same category. A taxonomically minded alien might, in a similar vein, look at all the mammals and sneer at the ‘loser’ ungulates, meekly submitting to being hounded and eaten by those with claws.

One of the big points in favour of civilization, IMO, is the ability for a whole bunch of people to pass their lives with reasonable stability and predictability, without the relentless day-to-day predator-prey striving for survival.

The second is your unreserved admiration for the sociopath. Sociopaths come in a wide spectrum, whose two ends may be approximately called the parasitic and the symbiotic. The parasitic sociopath’s best environment is an organization with a high inertia cash flow established by a previous Symbiont, where mistakes – even catastrophic ones – will show up on the balance sheet only 2-3 years down the line. A vigorous stirring up of the organization, a few short term measures – usually trimming the bottom-line – to simulate a turnaround, and get promoted up, sideways or out before he can be held accountable for his actions.

The parasite analogy works rather well: if the parasite has a low barrier to move to another host, it will tend not to care about individual hosts, jumping hosts after it’s milked one dry (move jobs or roles with low penalty). If, on the other hand, its genetic interests become so intertwined with the host that they both have the same ‘exit’ to the next generation, or payoff, or whatever, then you can expect its behaviour to be much more symbiotic.

Thus, the surest indicator of the Parasite is a short half-life in any given role. Within a year, about half would have moved on, within two years, another half. The one who stays beyond three years is in serious danger – chickens will come home to roost any day now, and it’s too difficult to deflect blame on the previous incumbent or external factors.

The Symbiont (founder, hereditary king, shogun, farmer) is someone whose fortunes are too closely tied to the host (organization, state, property) over a long period of time. In the case of inheritable property, the oldest genetic imperative of all is harnessed. You don’t want to leave your son a moth-eaten kingdom, farm or company.

I would contend that our whole economic crisis was precipitated by an epidemic of parasites across the board – executives maximizing short term goals everywhere – companies, their boards, the investors (i.e. fund houses)… and the infection rate accelerated by the very phenomenon – short term parasites hopping from place to place, free of the burden of achievement and failure.

Note the similarity in behaviour of the sell-out sociopath to the snail parasite which modifies snail behaviour, puts blinking markers on it to ensure that it perches on a highly visible leaf and ‘merges’ with the next large bird which spots it. The sell-out gets accelerated vesting, change-of-control golden parachutes and so forth, which are more likely to influence their decision than maximizing the organization’s utility function. The employees get digested.

The short-term vs long-term sociopath problem was old when Socrates was young, and hasn’t been solved yet (No, Francis, you can put your hand down) By quickly rotating a set of sociopaths every 4-5 years, we incur the high costs of having parasitic sociopaths running the country. The reason we should be afraid of China is not because their sociopaths are smarter – but because they think in terms of decades, while ours think in terms of terms. The reason why democracy even half-way works is because there is a hidden tier of long-term sociopaths – Sir Humphrey and his gang – whose interests are nominally tied to the continuance of stable government.

Ben Horowitz (Marc Andreesen’s partner and worthy blogging successor) has an excellent article on Why We Prefer Founding CEOs:

Founding CEOs naturally take a long view of their companies. The company is their life’s work. Their emotional commitment exceeds their equity stake. Their goal from the start is to build something significant. They instinctively know that big product cycles come from investment and that even the biggest product cycles will eventually fade. Professional CEOs, on the other hand, tend to be driven by relatively shorter-term goals. They are paid in terms of stock options that vest over 4 years and cash bonuses for quarterly and yearly performance.

Investments in innovation do not pay out in the current quarter. Typically, they don’t even pay out in the current year. If you care about your bonus this year, you are directly incented not to make investments in new inventions as you will incur the expense, but reap no profits.

Anyways. This whole comment is written from a loser perspective and unconsciously and implicitly assumes a loser-centric utility function for the organization, which has no claims to primacy. My advice to losers is this: if your lifecycle in an organization is much longer than the resident sociopaths, you’re likely to get all kinds of grief and frustration. Tailor your expectations and lifecycle to that of your sociopath master. Look him up in LinkedIn, calculate his half-life, find out when he entered his current role. You’ll be surprised at how accurately you can predict reorgs.

steven July 23, 2010 at 7:53 am

You should really write a book about this.

It seems that you have enough thoughts to construct a good book, you just need to organize and expound upon them as such.

Dajka July 24, 2010 at 1:33 am

Sir, your article is excellent. Your future posts will be followed with maximum priority .

Steve Trinward August 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Just stumbled on this discussion via a friend who’s working out of the Loser-minimalist camp, but always thwarted by his work ethic. I’ve found my way out of the corporatist trap, twice in fact (one backslide during the late 90s), when it became all too evident that I was “too good a worker” to survive as a Loser, too aware to be Clueless, and too ethical to become a Psychopath. Been freelance since 1988 and altho still finding ways to keep the bills paid (let alone create passive income-stream?) I have managed so far.

This piece defines the landscape well; not a big fan of “Office” since I’ve seen it too often in reality and don’t really care for Corell — but it seems to be on enough stations in reruns now that I may give another try.

meanwhile, any of you would-be book-writers seeking a highly capable editor, drop me a line!

Devan August 24, 2010 at 8:32 pm

This is simultaneously enlightening and depressing as hell. What options are there for a loser with a work ethic that doesn’t want to buy in or lose himself?

Steve August 25, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Only one, Devan … go solo. That will mean different things to different people, but could include freelance work, starting a business, becoming a hermit, entering a monastery … you get the picture.

Rocket Man November 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Wow! Insightful! On the money!

I always wondered why all the really wealthy people are sociopaths. Duh!

nfgayle November 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm

This is the best blog post I have ever read on the nature of life within the corporate structure, and arguably the best blog post I have ever read.

Ever.

Setterman November 18, 2010 at 9:39 am

Bravo.
There is much to be said for being a skilled ‘Loser’. Especially now.
Missing (imo) are affects of Favoritism and Skill. I’d love to hear Venkat’s and others’ views on these in the heirarchy.

Prakash November 22, 2010 at 12:53 am

Absolutely gorgeous analysis! I’ve subscribed to your blog feed.

carrieoki December 2, 2010 at 3:27 am

“… sociopaths use buzzspeak as a coded language with which to simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the clueless and communicate with each other.”
I am investigating sociopathy. I would dearly love to have the source of this information for my research. Feel free to contact me by my email address. Thanks in advance.

Alex January 16, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Very interesting analysis indeed.

I would be interested in a more wide reaching analysis of the other Office versions (the German one in particular, Stromberg, has subtly different characterisations). I suspect, for my part, that suggesting that the mass of the workforce is comprised of economic-losers (potentially aware of this fate) managed by oblivious clueless incompetents is not a reasonable conclusion from the source material. However, the suggestion that the higher echelons are necessarily sociopathic does not ring very true with some of the depictions of upper-management. Upper management in the UK version might possibly earn this title with reference to the merger storyline, but their essential likeability and competence, a feature born out strongly in the German version, suggests that weak middle-management and sociopathy at higher levels are by no means inevitable. The German version is particularly interesting for highlighting the existence of a generally competent, and clued-in layer of middle-management on the same level as the Michael/David character.

CROTEAR January 17, 2011 at 1:23 am

Another source to look at for stuff like this is George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones Series. Soon to be an HBO series.

All the characters can be grouped into the categories you mention here: cynical sociopaths who play the game of thrones, arranging marriages, murders, alliances, and wars to gain control of the Iron Throne. The clueless who get caught up in ideas like chivalry to their detriment. The losers who are just a cynical as the sociopaths they serve, but have no pretensions of rising higher.

For the sociopaths, each person is a pawn in the game, and you only need to know what drives them to move the piece where you want it.

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