I’ve been doing more reading of Venkat’s (@vgr) writings as of late, mostly driven by a friend, far more well versed in Ribbonfarm than me, who’s references and worldview I’d like to better understand. I got a copy of The Gervais Principle a few weeks ago, and finally got a chance to dig into it this weekend.
Briefly, the Gervais principle is an analysis for how human interactions play out in organizations. Venkat’s discussion leans heavily on examples from The Office. In fact, I’d argue that it’s one part organizational theory, two parts literary criticism of the television series. If you’d like to read the whole thing (and I highly recommend it) Venkat has made the entire series of essays available on his Ribbonfarm blog.
I’ve been getting a lot of mileage lately out of the, now long running, realization that there’s often multiple plausible interpretations for any set of human interactions. Communication is layered; human intention is rarely straightforward; it’s a widely acknowledged fact that our brains filter out patterns that make sense to it from the vast actuality of stimuli that occurs at any given time.
What we see is a lossy view of the world. This lossiness gives rise to the plausibility of misunderstanding, of differing valid interpretations.
While the best piece of criticism of the GP comes naturally, from Venkat himself (in an analysis of how other theories of organizational behavior mechanics can be fit into the Gervais Principle’s triangle) what I’d like to do in this post is provide an alternative framing for viewing office politics. I’d like to put a different lens on the view of the organization that the Gervais Principle — a beautiful piece of cinematic crit. The savage imagery of bureacratic interactions belies a dark worldview of organizational machinations, one that I’d argue isn’t necessarily true.
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, source Ribbonfarm
In the way that only brilliant pieces of writing can, Gervais got under my skin. It’s an insightful, compelling, and, in the case of The Office references at any rate, incredibly predictive. It’s also frustrating, flat, and not very instructive. Most damning of all: I find that I don’t personally fit into the framework. Clearly there’s something missing here.
What Gervais Gets Right
The org chart of any company is messy and illogical. It is true that men who talk to upper management as peers, often get treated and rewarded as peers. (and the corollary, men who talk to upper management as sycophants, often get treated as loyalists). Self-interest is a valuable currency in organizational politics; so is blamelessness and the ability to claim ownership of “successful” projects.
A lot of people who don’t run the company or have the social skills to treat upper management as peers spend most of their time at work making friends and building a reputation for themselves in some unrelated field. Favors get traded at every level of the organization; personal brand and likability are hard currency that can be traded on. Middle managers can be loyal, self-satisfied individuals, a caste of like minded individuals who understand their role in protecting the organization and grooming new members for their ranks. Like understands like.
These are all true, and accurate observations about human social structure. They’re true of large organizations especially.
Life, from a Different Angle
There’s two ways to view evolution. One, the most widely accepted and talked about in our current age, is through the lens of death. That is, evolution is driven by who survives long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation.
The butterflies with large spots on their wings? They’re ones that fool would be attackers into believing they’re animals, not tasty prey.
Ebola virus? Hasn’t wiped out humanity yet because it kills its host too fast to be able to spread to other humans fast enough.
Evolution isn’t a steady winnowing of the most competitive versus the best camo, however. It’s punctuated, it’s messy, it’s faster and more live than terminal survival. There’s bacteria involved and environment and random gene mutations, and, from at least one scientist’s perspective, cross-species love. It’s not about who eats who, but whom seduces whom.
Likewise, there’s another way to look at office politics. Venkat’s Gervais principle asks us to look at them through the lens of a sociopath: pitting the losers against each other, laughing at the clueless’s devotion to a job when they’re clearly the pawns of the situation. Viewing corporate hierarchy through this lens isn’t wrong, in fact. Much like seeing evolution only through the lens of death, it’s useful and instructive and leads to deep insights about the motivations and attitudes of your coworkers.
However, it’s not particularly useful for driving change or moving within the structure that you’re surrounded by. Most people who subscribe to a death cult think that the only way out is in a coffin. Similarly, if you believe in evolution and only see movement and change as possible via death, you’re missing the deeper, broader implications of the here, of the now. If evolution has set and fixed who you are — beta, alpha, omega, sociopath, loser, clueless — then you are stuck to act out the script that your genes established.
If you believe that finding and cultivating clueless people to be your fall men is the only way forward in the org chart, you wouldn’t be wrong. You’d also be limiting yourself into the reality where the only organization you know and see are ones that are the playgrounds of self-interested sociopaths. Perhaps this is a worldview you think you’d enjoy, because in your imagining of it, you’d be the sociopath. The Gervais interpretation is seductive because it explains your, the loser’s, hatred for your middle managers’ apparent idiocy. It excuses your slacker mentality. (Let’s be honest, the middle manager type probably isn’t spending many cycles reading into bureaucratic revenge porn).
This is not to say that there aren’t self-interested sociopaths at work who have developed a coded, aristocratic way of sorting peerage, or that some workers’ attitude and relationship with employment is entirely fixated on the transactional and formulaic (it’s just a job). But there are other ways to understand these dynamics.
A Classification With Moral Precepts
Personally, I find Jane Jacob’s Guardian vs Commercial syndromes to be quite accurate for understanding organizations, as well as uplifting. Her identification of core values of different mindsets provides a blueprint for understanding the core values of people and social groups. (It’s not all rosy though — the monstrous hybrids truly are monstrous, but for a clear and specific corruption of values.)
A quick mapping, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the syndromes. Jane establishes two guiding value systems (Jane calls them ‘moral precepts’) for human organization: guardians and commercial. Guardians shun trading, seek vengeance, treasure honor, respect hierarchy and value loyalty. Commercial types shun force, compete, value honesty, respect contracts, and collaborate. (You can find the whole list of attributes and values on Wikipedia).
You can sort organizational structures themselves into these categories — ‘commercial’: open source software projects, manufacturing firms; ‘guardian’: the army, sales organizations; and ‘monstrous hybrids’: modern police forces, the mafia.
Although I think that most actors inside of a bureaucracy tend toward the guardian mindset, you can loosely map sociopaths and the clueless (definitely the most clueless) as operating from the guardian mindset; losers tend to float more commercial, depending on the broader industry that the organization is framed within.
Importantly, the guardian/commercial split offers something that the Gervais principle does not: a cohesive framing for understanding the value system of the syndromes. Being able to ascribe a value system to a ‘clueless’ person grants them a dignity that the sociopathic ‘clueless’ label would seek to rob them of. Loyalty and honor above honesty may not be a value system that I subscribe to, but it is one that I can, albeit grudgingly, acknowledge as valid, and learn to at least respect, if not one that I can personally work within.
I love the Gervais Principle. It’s masterful, it’s insightful, it’s opinionated. Its insights are thrifty, efficient, and honest.
I feel that I haven’t quite lived up to my promise to show a lighter way of viewing self interest, rather I bowed out and pointed you instead towards Jane Jacobs’ syndromes; I’m afraid that a value framework and deep appreciation for the game is all I’ve got to offer.
Appendix: Situating Myself, Gervaically
Let’s see if I can do it using what I learned from another lossy framework — I’m an early Scorpio with a double helping of Aquarius influence in my rising sign and moon. This maps loosely to a passive-aggressive honest sociopath who fails miserably at working towards my own self-interest. I tend to be employed in organizations at the Loser class. As an organizational operative of the Sociopathic bent however, I find that my principle motivator often leans toward revolution. This manifests itself in either organizing revolt*, in face of the obvious injustices meted down by the actually self-interested, or in doomed attempts at drumming up organizational support for exploring new projects or business ventures.
I tend not to last very long or exist very happily when embedded inside large, dysfunctional organizations, as I find office machinations endlessly fascinating, wholly distracting, and completely rage inducing.
*AMA about the time I successfully organized a lower-class faction at Walmart to (almost) sweep the end of summer intern awards.
 As an aside, the Gervais Principle is the best writing I’ve ever seen on my favorite usage of television — as a brilliant foil for the structure of our own reality. It reminds me of a short piece on political lessons from a few TV shows I wrote a few years back, with a more political than organizational bent.