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The Gervais Principle The complete Internet cult classic series the Gervais Principle plus a bonus essay on the movie Office Space and a TV movie and reading guide for connoisseurs of workplace politics Written in six parts between 2009 and 2013 by Venkatesh Rao on ribbonfarmcom and Slashdotted twice this widely acclaimed series examines organizational dynamics through the lens of the NBC show The Office and offers a comprehensive tragic philosophy of work for the modern world

10 thoughts on “The Gervais Principle

  1. Keith Wilson Keith Wilson says:

    The Gervais Principle named after Ricky Gervais the creator of The Office and coined by Venkatesh Rao of the not as popular blog Ribbonfarm states that at the top of any organization are sociopaths at the bottom are losers and in the middle are the cluelessIn case that isn’t self evident to you let me explain A sociopath with an idea recruits losers to do the work and a company is born The losers accept a bad bargain for the sake of a steady paycheck They know who cashes in big and it’s not them it’s the sociopaths at the top; so they punch their clock put in their time but derive most of their satisfaction in life if any from what they do outside of work The clueless the middle managers or any hard worker don’t acknowledge that the sociopaths are in bad faith They believe they can get ahead by playing the game and busting their butts for the company The sociopaths snicker give the clueless a pittance than the losers and use the clueless to shield them from the people at the bottom who know the truth The clueless believe they will rise in the organization but they never will because they don’t understand how the game is played It’s played according to the sociopath’s rules not the rules in the employee handbookFolks from Wall Street or any other rapacious dog eat dog field readily agree that the Gervais Principle is an accurate summation of the firms in which they work I’ve been employed by a few non profit organizations that have proved to be headed by sociopaths and staffed by losers and clueless as well I can admit that I’ve been a loser stuck in dead end jobs that weren’t going anywhere While at a local health system I was largely a member of the clueless until I caught on to the game Finally I uit to go my own way to private practice taking a few of the local health system’s customers with me as well as the skills they paid me to learn thus becoming a small time sociopath with no losers or clueless to exploitIf you agree with this characterization about organizations what can you do about it? How is a person to behave if he wants to be successful but also wants to sleep at night? True sociopaths don’t have any trouble sleeping no matter who they screw; but if you cannot be as ruthless as all that what else can you do but take your place in the ranks of the losers and clueless?I think this is the place where we should turn down the hyperbole The terms sociopath loser and clueless are amplified to help you understand the situation but they don’t tell you what to do about it Therefore lets tone it down a little and reduce the heat I don’t think to be successful in an organization you really need to be an actual bona fide clinically certified sociopath with all the baggage that entails; I think it means that to succeed in business you have to be a businessman to get rich you’ve to be a capitalist to prevail in office politics you’ve got to study your Machiavelli You’ve got to turn away from morals and ethics just a bit and trust that the market with its blind hand will sort things outThe clueless are not entirely clueless at least they don’t have to be to be successful middle managers or satisfied hard workers You should be able to love what you do and work hard at doing it for its own satisfaction without being derided as clueless because the one percent reap most of the benefits The prototypically clueless believe the lies the one percent makes them swallow that they too will thrive in the same way the one percent thrives Actual middle managers and hard workers know that its rigged but take pleasure in work for its own sake When I’m on the soccer field I put it all out there I try my best and do whatever I can do to bring my team victory; but I’m not clueless because when the game is over I know it was just a game I know that even if we win it doesn’t mean we’re all rich famous and get the hot chicks If I score the winning goal my teammates may hoist me on their shoulders for a celebration but by the end of the night after so many beers I can be as annoying to them as ever Nor are the losers really losers Sure they’ve accepted what one many may characterize in a sociopathic frame of mind as a bad bargain; but is it really? Your average worker toiling in a factory office or school may never be the one percent vacationing in Capri They may not get the stock options the inflated CEO pay or the golden parachutes the sociopaths relish Stuck in mindless repetitive and meaningless labor it might be hard for them to find joy in what they do to grab for all the gusto they can; but it doesn’t have to mean they are losersThey are not entirely losers as long as they have an adeuate steady paycheck I was a loser a few times; but every turn I took as one resulted in a net gain While I worked in food service I built my house While I milked cows I raised small children While I sawed logs turning big pieces of wood into little pieces of wood all day I went to school at night While I worked at that local health system and saw the groundbreaking mental health program I developed shut down by the bean counters I did the grunt work of shrinking heads eight hours a day and wrote my first book Loser my assSo you see the Gervais Principle can illuminate many things about the organization in which you work Just don’t take the terms too seriously Keith Wilson writes on mental health and relationship issues on his blog Madness 101

  2. Caroline Caroline says:

    What the heck did I just read?Do you think everything from The Office was incredibly true to life? Do you want someone to explain to you the underlying principles that make the world work as depicted in The Office? Do you agree that companies are made of exactly three types of people Losers Clueless and Sociopaths? I am not making this up No? Then I suggest you not read thisThis felt like an attempt at the Forer effect that got too specific and got all the specifics wrong A lot of individual parts of the book rang at least somewhat true I'm sure everyone has heard seen some amount of empty posturing Posturetalk in this book But the book claims only middle management does Posturetalk and they do it 100% of the time Upper management instead does Powertalk which is like Posturetalk except there are real stakes Except when they are talking to ICs at which point upper management does Straight Talk where they say exactly what they mean Really upper management never does any empty posturing? Middle management never has anything at stake? The entire book was like this and none of it matched up to my experience

  3. Aman A Aman A says:

    65Highly recommend to my The Office obsessed friendsI read this book in a day and then a year later reread it in a few days As someone who has seen the American version of The Office multiple times and found myself obsessively analyzing it this was a very interesting and captivating read I'm not sure how much of the theories presented I believe and if I would at all apply them to my life but nonetheless it was very enlightening at times and I particularly enjoyed the last section on theists vs atheists vs sociopathsOnce the framework of loser clueless and sociopath were established it was crazy and unbelievable how perfectly the interactions in the show fit into this frameworkThe parallels to Improv theater were also very interesting and have put the book Impro by Keith Johnstone very high on my to read listThe author of the book Venkatesh Rao has a blog called Ribbonfarm which is a vast and enticing rabbit hole that I have only begun to exploreThe Gervais Principle suggests that in any organization at the top are the “sociopaths” at the bottom the “losers” and in between the “clueless” and he defines these three terms very specifically “””The Gervais Principle is this 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“””This book delves into the psychologies of the characters and explains why each character is either a Sociopath Clueless or a LoserThis book talks about the different ways in which each of these groups speak with one another and primarily focuses on “PowerTalk” the language Sociopaths use amongst themselves Rao also points out that PowerTalk if it can be learned can only really be learned through trial and error and practice and failure learned through experience as opposed to from textbooksRao talks about “Arrested Development” where someone’s development as a human being stalls because they focus on furthering their strengths and that their addiction to their strengths results in a failure to truly grow as an individualWe see the immature nature of the Clueless Michael Dwight and Andy with sufficient psychological detail that it forces me to consider those in my own life who fit the mold of CluelessRao on status illegibility and group dynamics is extremely eye opening to someone who has never read about group dynamics While there may be other books on group dynamics that are thorough and correct the sheer magnitude and concentration of examples provided by the show gives me a way to really better understand the concepts It is not rare for Rao to explain a concept and follow it up with a long bullet point list of examples that illustrate the concept something that is rare in books talking about complex hard to grasp conceptsRao also speaks on humor and it's effects on group status This section was very entertaining because I love making jokes in groups and to see an analysis of various kinds of jokes was both eye opening and simply fun Both the section on jokes and in group dynamics has made me wary of my desire for group status and made me aware of how changes in group status are ultimately peanuts compared to overall statusThe Office is the show best known for crime humor There are many people who prefer to not watch the show because of the high levels of cringe Rao very clearly explains why the lack of self awareness in mainly the Clueless causes us as an audience to cringeFinally Rao focuses on the Sociopaths He claims that they play a game of altering realitiesSeasoned Sociopaths maintain a permanent facade of strategic incompetence and ignorance in key areas rather than just making up situational incompetence arguments This is coupled with indirection and abstraction in reuests given to reports The result is HIWTYL judoHIWTYL Heads I Win Tails You LoseI think it is imperative to understand and even be able to play this game that Sociopaths play in order to not be manipulated yourself Rao touches on key points on how they get and keep and grow their power It isn't so much that they forcefully take the power but rather it is handed to them by those unwilling to face reality and it's infinite complexitiesThe book ends with a highly philosophical discussion on the socially constructed realities we live in and that Sociopaths in pursuit of unmediated reality acuire power or rather it is acuiesced to them by those afraid of peeling off the masks This is where the connections to Improv come in Finally the book ends with a discussion of Toby the failed Messiah figure a Sociopath who refuses to play the power fame and instead uses his nihilistic knowledge to protect the blissfully unaware from facing reality and escaping their paradise of ignorance The last bit in its reference both to Messiac figures and Priests and The Hero's Journey is Peterson esueAll in all this book is a 65 which is to say a Must Read

  4. Rahul Rahul says:

    I don't write book reviews but this is by far one of the most insightful and brilliant pieces of commentary I've ever read The fact that it's based on The Office a personal favorite makes it all the enjoyable

  5. Nicolay77 Nicolay77 says:

    I just saw Office Space last night to finish the book with the reuired essay It fits the tone of the rest of the book perfectlySomething like this is being played in all offices in the world by both enlightened and unsuspecting partiesThis is a bit like taking the Red Pill in Matrix

  6. Gavin Gavin says:

    A fun nasty bitchy taxonomy of social class psychological theory of the firm; a mishmash of economics psychoanalysis and literary criticism; a series of massive blogposts apologising for being a book It splits employed people into three classes with terrible names Leaders Sociopaths Loyalists Clueless Workers Losers and throws a massive amount of fictional evidence at each That's obviously a formal hierarchy Leaders Loyalists Workers but Rao's first big left turn is to impose a second contradictory ordering on the 3 classes in developmental psychology terms Clueless Losers Sociopaths I like his subdivision of Losers into Minimum effort rationally disengaged; Overperformers; future Sociopaths It looks nasty and Rao is uninterested in making it seem moral or immoral but if this is how the leaders actually think Rao is doing us the 99% a service Is this system justified and true? No Rao writes the best clickbait in the world what he calls insight porn It is the verbal euivalent of the noise an F1 engine makes on a 200m straight The class theory in this would make for a great literary theory a blueprint for future Office Spaces Myers Briggs is marginally better than the dumb view of people as or less defective versions of one character So too is this better than bossesworkers cod Marxism He could have massively increased his audience and reduced unwanted connotations by renaming Losers to Workers the Loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues does not ask for much and finds meaning in his life elsewhere He has a weird relationship with the amoral elites he often says things like In the big games of life those involving the Darwinian dimensions of sex money or power we don’t get to define the rules And it is only those games that can create social value putting destiny and ultimate value in their hands And he clearly thinks of himself as a post reality shock enlightened figure And yet he rags on the inauthenticity nihilism cruelty hollowness of his 'Sociopaths'There are dozens of acute contentious boggling passages like For high empathy people all this is natural By participating in collective feeling in groups of any size and reacting to basic attractionaversion drives you can actually safely navigate all the complexity by instinct Not only can you do this you will actually feel good doing this This feeling is called happiness I don’t have time to go into this but happiness is entirely a social phenomenon and there’s plenty of evidence that the best way and from my reading the only way to get happy is to get sociable Non social feelings that seem like happiness turn out upon further examination to be distinct emotions like contentment euanimity or hedonistic pleasure the level of abstraction that we are concerned with all theories of developmental psychology – Freud’s Piaget’s Erikson’s Maslow’s – say roughly the same thing about arrested development you are born Clueless and clue up in fits and starts Bits of you get stuck and left behind at different points and eventually you exhaust your capacity for real change and stall though you may retain an illusion that you are on a path of “lifelong growth and learning” itself a pattern of arrested development I can imagine a teenager reading this and becoming absolutely insufferable But much great writing can lend spurious superiority to fools for instance NietzscheFree here

  7. Kishor Kishor says:

    Fascinating I'm a bit hesitant to overly generalize based on Venkatesh's thoughts but the scary part about reading this series of blog posts is that there are parts that are guaranteed to resonate with any reader who's ever worked in a corporate hierarchy I particularly enjoyed the bit on how humor works when n123 I skipped the Office Space essay

  8. Peter Peter says:

    I don't think that it's overdoing it to say that this book really a series of curated blog posts will probably change how you think about work As a synthesis of the Peter Principle thesis and the Dilbert Principle antithesis The Gervais Principle is a fitting synthesis of many timeless theories of organizational genesis growth and stagnation as well as organizational coercion and internal politics It's an easy read and well worth your time although it is as the introduction states a bit of a matrix book; it's hard to look backwards and does really force some real self reflectionIt's hard to describe this; I got some of the same feelings I got while reading Finite and Infinite Games and there are just so many zen like counterintuitive concepts within the overall framework that you should probably just go read it Phrases like the mediocre will inherit the earth happiness is a social construct and in traditional accounting you'll have a net deficit of blame all jostle for position within a somewhat counter cultural but relatively resonant world viewAt the end of the day the Gervais Principle is something that will stick in your head and provide a valuable mental model for navigating the world Like all mental models they are most valuable in aggregate but that doesn't diminish the joy in finding a new one

  9. Julian Michael Julian Michael says:

    Really funny and maybe not to be taken too seriously but still very thought provoking I think there are some real insights here into big corporations as well as general interpersonal dynamics I certainly came away with lots to think about wrt my own experiences in big corporations as well as my personal life and motivations I think the ideas here apply obviously to non tech companies just considering the skills nature and role of labor vs management and some general cultural differences in tech vs the companies of The Organization Man But anyway I would certainly recommend this to friends who 1 have corporate jobs tech or not and 2 are familiar with the US version of The Office

  10. Kars Kars says:

    An enjoyable read for the most part and at times illuminating too It fails to be particularly useful for me because I haven't seen the American version of The Office so most of the examples are lost on me The cynical labels Rao has chosen for his archetypes may be amusing but ultimately prevent me from embracing his theory as a tool for reading my own work environments That might make me 'clueless' or a 'loser' two of the three archetypes but I just don't like to self describe as a 'sociopath' the final one

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