Cartoonist Scott Adams' syndicated comic strip "Dilbert" routinely satirizes the corporate world and the strange characters who inhabit it. In the 1990s, Adams developed his own satirical "Dilbert Principle" in response to the popularity of human resource axioms such as the "Peter Principle." While the Peter Principle holds that competent employees are routinely promoted until they reach a level of incompetence, this principle suggests that incompetent employees are often promoted to management positions simply to prevent further damage in the working ranks.
Under the Dilbert Principle, an incompetent computer programmer would be "promoted" out of his or her department in order to allow other competent programmers an opportunity to work in peace, for example. The newly promoted manager would be able to fill his or her day by attending ineffectual meetings and composing mission statements, while the rank-and-file workers could get on with actual company business.
When the tongue-in-cheek Dilbert Principle first appeared in print, most human resource and business organization experts considered it to be nothing more than a satirical take on established management hierarchy theories. It would make little sense for company leaders to deliberately promote their least competent employees to managerial positions with major responsibilities. Promotions were intended to reward competent employees for their skills, not remove incompetent employees from the line of fire.
Over time, however, many of these same experts would come to see the hidden wisdom behind the Dilbert Principle. In many large corporations, it became apparent that certain upper management positions had become far removed from the day-to-day operations of the company. It was indeed feasible to promote incompetent employees out of a regular department and into nebulous middle management positions in order to placate irate customers, disgruntled co-workers or frustrated supervisors.
While the Dilbert Principle may have began as a satirical jab at human resource practices, it has since become required reading in many business organization classes. The actual number of incompetent employees who have benefited from such promotions may always be a matter of dispute, but at least the corporate world does admit the Dilbert Principle is closer to the truth than first suspected.