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The Dilbert Principle

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"I need to promote one of you to the district manager position. Dilbert, your technical knowledge is too valuable to lose. Ditto for Alice. Neither of you can be promoted. The only logical choice is to promote Al because he has no valuable knowledge."

The Dilbert Principle is a counterargument to The Peter Principle. It states that, generally speaking, the least competent workers are systematically and swiftly moved to the position where they can do the least damage: management. In other words, the persons who least deserve promotion (or most deserve to be fired) will be promoted instead of the competent.

Reasons for this range from good, old-fashioned cronyism to attempts to subvert the Peter Principle to... well, cronyism — though it's not uncommon for individuals to rise within a bureaucracy on the basis of superficial traits that have nothing to do with their effectiveness on the job (good looks, impressive height, etc) or skills that are more relevant to getting a job than to doing it (manipulation, flattery, etc). In any case, the human roadblocks are thus removed, leaving the employees who actually can work to get on with it... but if they wanted the promotion, their morale will take a hit.

The name of the principle was coined by cartoonist Scott Adams — naming it after his comic stip series Dilbert — who identified this trend as common in businesses. He wrote an article for The New Yorker describing the principle in detail, and later included the article in a book (also titled The Dilbert Principle) detailing various similar office phenomena.

Compare Kicked Upstairs.

Examples of this Trope include:

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    Comic Strips 
  • Scott Adams, the author of the comic Dilbert, wrote an entire book dedicated to how promotion has changed from the Peter Principle to his coinage. Thus the Pointy-Haired Boss and the Marketing Department as shown in the strip.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In A Few Good Men, Lt. Commander Galloway is a good investigator but an utterly hopeless attorneynote  so her superiors at JAG put her in charge of the defense in the upcoming hearing of the People vs. Dawson and Santiago but select Kaffee as the actual attorney for the two Marines. Their suspicions become true when she performs two major screw-ups that nearly get the Marines a lifetime in Leavenworth had not Kaffee been that good (she refuses the offer of her charges getting manslaughter instead of murder without discussing it with them — Dawson turns out to be so hard-core that he would prefer risking life imprisonment over accepting he did a dishonorable thing, but the fact is she did a huge no-no by lawyer conduct standards — and she convinces Kaffee to work to expose the misdeeds of General Jessep when the primary goal of the team (put reasonable doubt on the murder charge) was achieved early in the hearing. By dragging the hearing on, the prosecution is able to almost win the case when they bring Dawson up for cross-examination, leading to Kaffee’s climactic Hail Mary of badgering Jessup into confessing on the stand).
  • Played with in Get Smart, where Max qualifies to be a field agent but is held back because he's too useful as an analyst. When circumstances get him promoted anyway, his fellow agents give him no respect because they know he's out of his zone of competence.
  • Happens in Office Space, where the two consultants make plans to fire the protagonist's two highly skilled friends but consider the protagonist himself to be management material, based on his hypnosis-induced attitude of not giving a shit and just flat-out telling them his bosses suck and he barely does any work. He also identifies a long list of inefficiencies within corporate processes and explains how the work environment naturally leads to dismotivation; the two consultants later gush over him because the Jerkass Had A Point and he was the only one with the guts to say it.
  • In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, this is how Supreme Leader Snoke justifies keeping General Armitage Hux in his position:
    Snoke: You wonder why I keep a rabid cur in such a place of power? A cur's weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool.
  • In Ted, the title character Ted has this happen twice to him. Whenever he's caught doing something that should get him fired, he is instead promoted. Both times, his reaction is something along the lines of "Are you fucking kidding me?!?" It's also a case of Springtime for Hitler as he is deliberately trying to get fired from his job by either openly insulting his boss or having sex with an employee during work.
  • The documentary films Fyre and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley both give frightening real-life examples of how this kind of cronyism can lead to disaster. Billy McFarland and Elizabeth Holmes were both essentially trust fund brats with no actual training or experience at the projects they wanted their companies to work on. In McFarland's case, the logistical complexities of running a full scale music festival on an isolated island with no infrastructure in place for something on that scale - measurable limitations such as the amount of houses, water, and toilets they would specifically need for a crowd of that size. Holmes claimed she had invented a revolutionary blood testing machine that only required a single drop of blood to perform over 200 tests - which every medical expert interviewed stated is impossible due to inherent physical limitations (and while she claimed she'd prove them wrong, she never offered a shred of evidence). Both of them are presented as being extremely charismatic frauds, who only came to lead their companies due to 1 - coming from money in the first place, and 2 - only being skilled at the things needed to get their positions: charisma and flattery.
    • It might shake your faith in humanity to see how many people blindly believed them, but remember that "The Dilbert Principle" was actively being practiced within both companies: many people actually did see them as incompetent frauds, but quit early on rather than go along with it. Like a sorting algorithm, eventually the only people left were the cronies more worried about getting the positions than if the project as a whole would actually work. Holmes frequently just fired people for telling her something was physically impossible, but would promote up people who repeated what she wanted to hear. McFarland wasn't as vindictive but he'd only listen to people who agreed with him, while blithely assuring anyone who did complain that things would work out in the end. Case in point, the original festival planner carefully and patiently explained to him that the isolated island simply didn't have the water or toilet infrastructure needed to host a music festival (much less all the electrical needs, etc.): when Billy ignored him, he simply quit in disgust because he realized how delusional Billy was and didn't even want the job anymore. Billy then replaced him with someone who told him what he wanted to hear.

  • Incompetence: Incompetent workers are often promoted quickly, whereas those who know what they're doing suffer from Limited Advancement Opportunities. This is why Zuccho has made it all the way up to Captain and Salieri is a Sergeant. Harry is actually amazed that Salieri made it as far as Sergeant, but notes that he won't go any further.

    Live-Action TV 
  • George Costanza in Seinfeld seems to employ this trope. During his tenure at the Yankees, he manages to do almost no work at all, even summarizing the work that he does do to Jerry as, "They had a concession stand like you wouldn't believe". Despite this, George is promoted twice before being "traded" to Tyler Chicken for a fermented chicken drink and other chicken products. He lands a second job doing essentially the same amount of work (i.e. none), scamming his boss by pretending to be handicapped, and then later refusing to quit when he realizes he can't be legally fired, as he never actually said he was crippled. He only lost his job when the company tanked financially.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street:
    • Roger Gaffney gets promoted to Captain ahead of the far more deserving Al Giardello, despite being almost completely incompetent as a police detective and completely hated by most of, if not all, his fellow officers for displaying racist and sexist attitudes in a unit with plenty of black and female officers.
    • Prior to that, Megan Russert is promoted to Captain ahead of Giardello. While Russert is certainly a more competent Lieutenant than Gaffney was, she is promoted purely because she is a woman, over Giardello who has put in years of service.
  • In The Wire has this as a principal theme, showing that in many organizations the people who are best at looking like they're doing their job well get promoted over the people who actually are doing their job well. And the things you need to do to look like you're doing well are usually in direct opposition to actually doing well. For example, the police bosses force their patrolmen to make lots of petty street busts rather than go after the real drug lords so their arrest rates go up and they get promotions.
  • The senior managers seen occasionally in The Office (UK) tick all the boxes, superficially, for competence, ability and efficiency and certainly present the image; but they are utterly unable to perceive that David Brent is not only horrifyingly inept, that his presence is a major drain on the company's profitability and a cancer on staff morale, and even praise him and want to promote him. The implication is that these are slightly higher-functioning David Brents who have managed to thrive and survive in the system and ascend to the next level - who are recognizing one of their own who just requires more nurturing. The American version of the series introduces Catherine Tate's character who projects the right image but who is horribly incompetent at all the things that really matter. or, from the point of view of the Dilbert principle, all the things that don't matter and which are irrelevant to ensuring her own survival.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The flavor text to the Management Shake-Up card in Netrunner reads "Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted."

    Video Games 
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon has a deliberate example with Sota Kume, a local Rabble Rouser who runs for the political position of Regional Representative. Kume by himself has no real talent or charisma as a politician and has little to no support from people within his own political party. His only real purpose is to be a useful idiot for his primary backer, Tokyo Governor Ryo Aoki, who plans to get him elected as a way to demonstrate his own political clout by showing that he can get anyone into a position of power regardless of qualifications or competence.

    Web Comics 
  • Invoked and lampshaded at various points in Freefall when referring to Mr. Kornada. Almost everyone who knows him knows just how horribly dumb and incompetent he is to the point that he was promoted to Vice President in charge of paperclip allocation (in a paperless office!) at Ecosystems Unlimited so that there was no way he could do any damage to the terraforming project. It didn't work.

    Western Animation 
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic features an oddly optimistic take on this in the episode "Winter Wrap Up". Twilight Sparkle is eager to participate in Ponyville's annual conclusion of winter and the beginning of spring, but proves to be completely unsuited for every task she tries (waking up hibernating animals, shoveling snow, breaking the ice on a frozen lake, etc). As Twilight feels dejected, it becomes clear the Winter Wrap Up is far behind schedule: the other ponies are good at their individual tasks, but they're completely uncoordinated and working inefficiently. Twilight volunteers to supervise the various teams and show how they can be more efficient, and thanks to her organizing skills, Ponyville finishes Winter Wrap Up on-schedule for the first time in years.
  • The Simpsons:
    • It's suggested that this is part of why Homer has kept his job for so long. In the third episode of the series, he was promoted into the role of safety inspector, which has remained his default job ever since. As a result, Homer's job in most episodes is to just sit at a control panel and laze about, rather than doing active work in the plant itself. Considering Homer has caused dangerous meltdowns in simulations of a power plant workstation, this is probably for the best, and it doesn't hurt that Burns's approach towards safety in the plant has consistently been "bribe the government and ignore it."
    • When Homer's new hair gets him a promotion, he suggests having the cafeteria give out more tartar sauce. Morale does improve, productivity does increase and accidents do decrease. However, it is noted by Smithers that the accident reduction is equal to that caused by Homer, and the production is the same as when Homer last took a vacation.
    • Used again in "You Only Move Twice", when another company gives him a management position based solely on his seniority in Burns' plant. He turns out to be a pretty good manager once removed from actual workflow, largely by being savvy enough to stay out of his team's way and focusing on keeping morale up.
  • Transformers: Among the Transformers fandom, there are jokes that this trope is part of the reason Starscream has such a high rank despite being, well, The Starscream. However, in-universe this is very much averted when it comes to combat: in a fight almost all Starscreams are generally genuinely dangerous warriors and taken very, very seriously.