You may have heard of “The Gervais Principle,” which is a way of explaining organizational structure in the context of The Office. You may have also heard of “The Michael Scott Theory,” which is similar and I’ll outline briefly here. If you want a nice deep-dive on both concepts, click that second link. The other benchmark we will be using here is “The Three Ladder System.”
The three working tiers
Broadly speaking, these tiers are:
- Economic losers: People say this is about 80% of an org. I’d say it’s maybe 65%. Mostly we are still discussing white-collar type work here. These are rank-and-file workers. They execute on stuff. They have tasks and deliverables. They can essentially be fired at any moment. Most do not have direct reports, but some do. When you get to the top of this “losers” tier, you are essentially in charge of labor — you are making good money and societally you’re not a “loser” by any means, but you have absolutely no leverage.
- The clueless: This is the middle manager class of orgs. The good ones work hard and are beneficial for the org. Most are meandering, clueless, and sit in meetings all day in their own invented reality. They stay here for decades.
- The sociopaths: These are the executives and those with true leverage. They are “decision-makers.” They can write checks. They spend too much time with each other and reinforce sloppy beliefs. Per research, only about 21% of CEOs are sociopaths, but I’d argue that’s a bit higher.
Now, there’s a big issue at work around language and vocabulary. My take has always been that rank-and-file speak about functional aspects of work and try to fit in/advance. The middle lives in a fantasy world. And, execs basically just use financial acronyms all the time.
The Michael Scott Theory is deeper, and talks about “posture-talk” — what the middle says to fit in above them — and “baby talk” — how the top and the bottom parrot back information to the middle, almost demeaning or infantilizing them in the process.
And now, societal ladders
This other theory is also three tiers, but they’re ladders:
- Labor: Does the work.
- Educated gentry: Wokeness and thought pieces.
- Elites: Working rich, old money, people looking to leverage up constantly.
In this theory, you move up each ladder (or down!), and sometimes you move onto a different ladder, but it’s not one “ladder of success,” as we commonly think of it — it’s multiple ladders, like so. I’d generally agree with this, because being high-skilled labor supposedly matters — we write articles about that! — but it doesn’t really matter, because someone else (an “elite”) still owns the company, owns the resources, and gets the most from your highly-skilled labor. Now, if you take your high skills and do your own thing, maybe you switch ladders. But if you keep working for Microsoft, Bill Gates and Satya Nadella stay on their ladder, and you stay on yours.
Is this a helpful way of thinking about stuff?
In the sense that it’s largely true? Yes. In the sense that it also could instill a sense of hopelessness about changing your lot in life? No. If it’s going to depress you, think on something else, i.e. your immediate friends and family, which is where your focus should probably be anyway, if we’re being honest.
Sheer reality, though: the basic life path is changing. This is not your Grand Pappy’s world anymore.
The work one above resonates more for me than the life one, because in reality, who cares about being “an elite?” If you care about that shit, you’re already a sociopath in my book.
The work one is interesting because the two most important things about any job are where you sit/rank and how you speak. If you understand the language of levels above you, you can move up very fast. Work is about code-switching and vocabulary more than productivity, innovation, collaboration, or anything else we claim it to be about. You need to know the terms, acronyms, and codes of where you work, and you need to know what’s expected from your “seat” or “rank.” If you know those things and can twist it to seem more relevant (via acronyms) than your current “seat,” you will get advanced — because honestly, the sociopaths with the decision-making authority spend all week burning themselves out on deal-chasing, meetings, financial analysis, and glad-handing. They don’t notice much nuance. If they encounter a person who says the right words, they will be drawn to that person and move them closer to the tier where they’d be able to interact with them more. It’s not a very complicated equation. It just gets political and bellowing-about-KPIs along the way.
What’s your take on these theories?