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Examining The Dilbert Principle

EXAMINING THE DILBERT PRINCIPLE

Examining The Dilbert Principle


Karl Knapp
Anderson University

Examining The Dilbert Principle

ABSTRACT
This paper provides empirical proof of the Dilbert principle, postulated by Scott Adams.
This principle theorizes that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place
where they can do the least damage: management. Forty-four managers and one hundred twelve
non-managers from three different companies are studied. The results provide statistical proof
that managers are less effective than non-managers when measured by IQ, EQ and educational
attainment. The results do not support the hypothesis that managers do the least damage, in fact
they are found to be the main cause of the corporate damage events studied. These results
indicate that the promotional philosophies of companies must be revised so that the most
effective workers are promoted to management.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The data in this paper is hypothetical and to be used only for the purpose
of the statistics class for which it was manufactured!

Examining The Dilbert Principle

Examining The Dilbert Principle


One of the most celebrated management thinkers of the 1990s is Scott Adams. Adamss
research indicates that a theory exists, which he dubs the Dilbert Principle. Adams defines the
Dilbert Principle as a common condition where the most ineffective workers are systematically
moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management (Adams 1996). If this
theory is correct, it has very serious implications for business. The theory suggests that the entire
bureaucratic management structure is flawed. This research will examine the validity of the
Dilbert Principle through statistical means.
The Dilbert Principle is based on years of management research. Henri Fayols principles
of management were published in 1916. Chester Barnard contributed the theory of organization
and authority in 1938. These and many other contributors have developed the discipline of
management over the last century. The main theory on which the Dilbert Principle is based is the
Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle is one of the most popular and misunderstood management theories.
The Peter Principle supposes that employees within an organization will advance to their
highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are
incompetent (Peter 1969). Several people, with a variety of results, have examined this theory.
Studies have found evidence to support the Peter Principle. Lezear has found that being
promoted is evidence that a standard has been met. Regression to the mean implies that future
productivity will decline on average (2000). Fairborn and Malcolmson suppose that the Peter
Principle is a by-product of using promotion to solve a moral hazard problem (2000). Faria has
suggested that workers have two skills. Those who are good at one are necessarily less good at
another when on the frontier, thereby causing the Peter Principle (2002).

Examining The Dilbert Principle

One of the most controversial theories is the Dilbert Principle. If this theory is correct, it
will have major implications for the discipline of management. The Dilbert Theory supposes that
the most ineffective workers are found in the ranks of management as a result of promotion to
reduce the level of damage they can do in the organization. This statement produces two main
hypotheses.
H1: Managers are less effective in the organization than non-managers.
The issue of organizational effectiveness is central to this hypothesis. The approach to be
used to test this hypothesis will be to study the organizational effectiveness factors of a group of
managers and non-managers. Organizational effectiveness will be measured on three factors:
Intelligence Quotient (IQ), Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) and Educational Attainment
(EA). A total organizational effectiveness score (TOE) will be derived by summing the percentile
score in each factor for each participant.
The second hypothesis is derived from the reason workers are promoted to management:
H2: Managers can do less damage to the organization than non-managers.
This hypothesis will be studied by choosing several current examples of major
organizational damage. For each example, an attribution score will be given to management and
non-management by studying the management and non-management attribution to that damage.
METHOD
Participants or subjects
Three different organizations in different product and service categories were selected for
study and management approval was granted by each of these companies board of directors. The
boards were interested in the results of the research to help the management team formulate
future promotional policies.

Examining The Dilbert Principle

The first organization is a global supplier of personal computer software with 80,000
employees. The second organization is in the global market for energy trading with 50,000
employees. The third organization is a global supplier of soft drinks also with 50,000 employees.
For each of these organizations 0.1% of the employees were chosen at random. The
random sample was selected by ordering the employees alphabetically, and choosing a random
number between 1 and 1,000 (53 was chosen). From the ordered list, every 1,000th employee was
selected, starting with the 53rd employee. From this overall random sample, 12% could not
participate due to absence during the testing period. The sample from each organization is
summarized in the following table:
Study Participants, by Organization
Classification
# Selected (0.1%)
# Participating
# Managers
# Non-Managers

Organization 1
80
70
22
48

Organization 2
50
44
10
34

Organization 3
50
42
12
30

Procedure
Subjects were required by their immediate supervisor to report to a testing facility at their
location for two-hours of their choice over a one week period. When they reported to the facility
they were given two tests. The first was a standard Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test utilizing a
Stanford-Binet scale. The BarOn EQ-i Emotional Intelligence (EQ) test from MHS was the
second test administered to each participant. To eliminate any order effects of the tests, every
other participant started with the IQ test. The educational attainment level (EA) for each
participant was derived from the human resource records of each organization. The total
organizational effectiveness score (TOE) was calculated for each participant by summing the

Examining The Dilbert Principle

percentile of their IQ, EQ, and EA scores. The theoretical range of the total organizational
effectiveness score is from 0.0-3.0.
To test the second hypothesis, Business Week magazine was studied for a three-month
period. Over this period, MBA graduate students unfamiliar with the purpose or method of this
study selected the top thirty most damaging organizational events. These events were then
reviewed by the MBA students who assigned an attribution score (%) to managers and nonmanagers as the cause of the events. To compensate for events caused by environmental or other
factors, a third attribution category was created. For each event, the total attribution score of
managers, non-managers and other factors was required to be 100%.
RESULTS
Results for Hypothesis 1
A series of two-sample mean comparison tests were performed to test hypothesis 1 (H1);
that managers are less effective in the organization than non-managers. These tests were
performed using Microsoft Excel. The means of the management and non-management groups
for the intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence quotient (EQ), educational attainment
(EA) and total organizational effectiveness (TOE) scores are compared.
Analysis revealed that the average IQ score of the employee group was higher than the
average score of the management group. This difference was found to be statistically significant,
p2=0.0033, miq=100.42, eiq=108.77, =16.00, nm=44, ne=112, at the .05 level of significance,
p=0.05.
Analysis revealed that the average EQ score of the employee group was higher than the
average score of the management group. This difference was found to be statistically significant,

Examining The Dilbert Principle

p2=0.0010, meq=92.96, eeq=102.34, =16.00, nm=44, ne=112, at the .05 level of significance,
p=0.05.
Analysis revealed that the average EA score of the employee groups was not statistically
different than the average score of the management groups, p2=0.8098, mea=15.43, eea=15.54,
smea=2.61, seea=2.64, nm=44, ne=112, at the .05 level of significance, p=0.05.
Analysis of the Total Organizational Effectiveness (TOE) scores (total of IQ, EQ, and EA
percentile scores for each participant) revealed that the average TOE score of the employee
group was higher than the average score of the management group. This difference was found to
be statistically significant, p2=0.0230, mtoe=1.35, etoe=1.69, smtoe=0.80, setoe=0.79, nm=44, ne=112,
at the .05 level of significance, p=0.05. Hypothesis 1 is supported.
Results for Hypothesis 2
Analysis of the attribution scores of the thirty most damaging corporate events in
Business Week magazine over the study period revealed that the average attribution score of the
employee group was lower than the average score of the management groups. This difference
was found to be statistically significant in the opposite direction, p1=1.22E-12, mat=0.70,
eat=0.19, smat=0.20, seat=0.14, n=30, at the .05 level of significance, p=0.05. Due to the
expectation that the attribution scores for the management groups would be lower than those for
the employee groups, hypothesis 2 is not supported.
DISCUSSION
As a result of the analysis hypothesis 1 is supported and hypothesis 2 was rejected. This
study indicates that, as predicted by the Dilbert Principle, the most ineffective workers are
systematically moved into management. Unfortunately, the rationale proposed by the Dilbert
Principle for this phenomenon, that the ineffective workers can do less damage in management,

Examining The Dilbert Principle

is not supported. Indeed statistical analysis would indicate that the opposite case may be true. If
the opposite is true, it could have catastrophic results on businesses in the future. The entire
rationale for promotion may need to be studied. It very well could be the case that businesses
would be best served, or at least less damage done, if the most EFFECTIVE workers are
promoted into management.
Several limitations to this study exist. Organizational effectiveness was predicted through
an equal combination of analytical intelligence, emotional intelligence, and educational
attainment. Unequal weighting of these factors may provide a more accurate predictor of
organizational effectiveness. Additional factors, such as work ethic, years on the job, and a
winning smile may need to be included in the analysis to more accurately predict organizational
effectiveness.
In summary, this study indicates the possibility of a total imbalance in corporate
promotion practices. Evidence indicates that the assumption on which these promotion practices
are based may be flawed. Confirmation of these findings by other studies, in other industry
groups will lend validity to this concern. Indeed, due to the evidence that the management
groups, in general, are causing the most damage to their own companies these promotion
practices should be studied as quickly as possible. In addition to studies of the private sector, the
applicability of these findings to the public sector should also be examined.

Examining The Dilbert Principle


REFERENCES
Adams, S. (1996). The dilbert principle. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Fairburn, J. A. & Malcomson, J. M. Performance, promotion, and the peter principle. Review of
Economic Studies, forthcoming, 2000.
Faria, J. R. (2000). An economic analysis of the peter and dilbert principles. Unpublished
manuscript, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.
Lazear, E. P. (2000). The peter principle: promotions and declining productivity. Retrieved
February 22, 2002 from http://siepr.stanford.edu/papers/pdf/00-04.pdf.
Peter, L. J. (1969). The peter principle. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc.

Examining The Dilbert Principle


AUTHOR NOTE
Karl R. Knapp, DBA Student, Anderson University.
Karl R. Knapp is now the Director of Information Technology Planning at Indianapolis
Life Insurance Company.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to the author at Anderson
University, 1100 East Fifth Street, Anderson, Indiana 46012 or via email to
karlknapp@karlknapp.com.

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