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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, incompetent workers will be promoted above competent workers to managerial positions, thus removing them from the actual work and minimizing the damage they can do. 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 a book describing the principle in detail.


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.

  • 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.

    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 takes this Up to Eleven with their introduction of 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."

    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 
  • 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. This has the intended effect of improving morale and thus increasing productivity and decreasing accidents. 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.


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