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A Confederacy of Dunces

UK plc: A Confederacy of Dunces, Clones and Psychopaths?

Introduced by Canadian sociologist Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter, the Peter Principle is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as: 'The theory 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.' According to Dr Peter, only those within a company who haven't yet reached their level of incompetence perform any productive work, and long-established companies tend to have a much higher concentration of incompetent managers than new, growing companies.

Related to the Peter Principle is the Negative Selection Principle. This says that senior figures in ineffectual hierarchies will deliberately choose as their subordinates incompetents or innocuous yes-men who won't pose any threat. The subordinates then do exactly the same, ensuring that the hierarchy is riven with ineptitude from top to bottom. (The Dilbert Principle states that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the amount of damage they're capable of doing. Unfortunately, the Negative Selection Principle ensures that a few of these catastrophic employees get rocket-boosted to the boardroom. Why is anyone remotely surprised by the incompetence of big companies? It's a given.) Looking at the last months of Tony Blair's administration, the Negative Selection Principle appeared to have been liberally applied. All critical voices were silenced, all dissenting personnel removed. This was an administration that, by most people's standards, lacked any authority or competence. The same was true of Margaret Thatcher and John Major's administrations in their final days in office. In fact, all administrations tend to degenerate in this way. It's not so much a question of initial promise petering out, as healthy contrary voices being systematically suppressed.

This process is further shaped by the Procrustes Principle. Procrustes ('Stretcher') was an inn-keeper who featured in the mythical adventures of Theseus in ancient Greece. Guests staying at his inn were unlikely to emerge alive since he was determined to make them fit the beds he'd prepared for them. Those too tall would have any body parts overhanging the bed sawn off; those too short would be stretched as if on a rack. Afterwards, the mutilated guests were finished off and their possessions seized by Procrustes. Theseus brought the deranged inn-keeper's reign of terror to an end by subjecting him to his own treatment on one of his deadly beds.

Procrustes' strange obsession with making people fit is shared by most companies. Employees are not generally allowed to express themselves. Creative diversity is absent. A company's workforce is typically a collection of conformist clones, none of whom possesses the qualities necessary to object when poor decisions are being taken. The seeds of a company's destruction are already present in this lack of a critical voice. The same is true of political administrations. Dissenters either shape up to the rigid Procrustean framework enforced by the Prime Minister, or depart. By all accounts, Gordon Brown could give Procrustes a run for his money.

Another omni-present phenomenon in companies and administrations is the Law of Unintended Consequences. A friend of mine once worked for a company with a shocking (and continuing) reputation for appalling customer service. He was informed by his line manager that the Problem Manager wanted problems to be raised on the problem management system only if the solution to the problem was already known and the solution could be implemented straight away. With this system in place, the monthly statistics showed that all problems were solved with awe-inspiring efficiency. The Problem Manager got a large bonus and was promoted, yet the whole concept of problem management had in fact been negated. Precisely those intractable problems that required effective problem management were not being allowed to be raised on the problem management system because they might take an inordinate amount of time to resolve, thus ruining the monthly statistics, and jeopardising the Problem Manager's bonus and career prospects. In other words, all serious problems, the ones giving rise to so many customer complaints, were rendered invisible. Naturally, no one in senior management noticed. They continually recited the dazzling (and quite meaningless) monthly stats and were apparently baffled by ongoing customer complaints.

This sort of practice has become rife in any system designed to measure and reward performance. The measurements are systematically manipulated until they have no relationship whatever with the performance they're supposed to be measuring. It's facile to produce a spreadsheet of statistics at the end of a month and to highlight how wonderful they are, as government spokespeople are wont to do. The trouble is they frequently have no relationship with reality. How many times during Tony Blair's time in power were impressive statistics cited regarding the NHS, Education, Crime etc only to be met with bemusement because they differed so markedly from people's direct experience?

Remember the GP appointments scandal? In order for the government to be able to say that people were being seen within 24 hours of making an appointment with their GP, GPs started preventing patients from making appointments in advance. (If you booked three days' in advance, this would indicate a 72-hour wait and thus breach the 24-hours rules.) Instead, patients had to phone up every day in competition with each other and scramble for the daily GP slots available. This arrangement was ridiculously inconvenient for patients, but provided the illusion of hyper GP efficiency, and the illusion is all that matters when such statistics are being quoted. Tony Blair was famously challenged by a viewer on BBC'sQuestion Time programme regarding this GP situation, and he expressed complete surprise. The trouble is, if he was surprised by this, what else might have come as a surprise to him? Why should any statistics be taken at face value? There should be a department whose sole aim is to challenge the validity and veracity of statistics and to sign them off only after a detailed audit of how closely they relate to the real world.

Look at police crime-resolution statistics; another farce. Their 'success' usually revolves around the number of kids they have arrested for stealing Mars Bars from corner shops rather than dealing with the serious crime that alarms us all.

An even more worrying consideration is the Psychopath Principle. This is derived from the polemicist film: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Here, corporations were presented as having all the characteristics commonly associated with psychopaths: self-interested, amoral, callous, deceitful, reckless, lacking any sense of guilt. Other studies have shown that many employees who rise to the highest levels of corporations are similarly endowed with psychopathic traits. Does the psychopathic nature of the corporation provide a salubrious environment for psychopathic employees, or does the proliferation of psychopathic employees at the top of a corporation shape the corporation's psychopathic character? If we add in the Peter Principle, we can safely assume that most of these high flying psychopathic employees have actually been promoted beyond their level of competence, or at least the level of competence associated with conducting legal business. (Enron, anyone?) Would you want an incompetent psychopath anywhere near a position of power? Unfairly or not, many people might consider the likes of Blair and Bush to be too close to this dangerous ilk for comfort.

Those high flyers who massage statistics to make themselves look good at the expense of doing their jobs properly - aren't they on the psychopathic disorder spectrum? Yet these are typically the employees considered to have the 'right stuff'? But by whom? - by Peter Principle incompetents and fellow psychopaths. Many of the pushy individuals who appear on Alan Sugar's The Apprentice appear quite demented. The relatively normal and intelligent ones, the ones you'd probably want to work with, are weeded out early on, leaving mouthy, obnoxious wannabes whose only attribute appears to be their degree of self-delusion. They make good TV perhaps, but they wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the levers of power in any sensible company.

Conrad Black, judging by the allegations made against him, was arguably near the top of the league of high-flying psychopaths who regard a company's assets as their own; who place their own advantage above those of the company at every turn. Don't forget that this was a man feted for many years, and who was elevated to the House of Lords. And who can forget Robert Maxwell? When one considers the extent to which many entrepreneurs and chief executives are intent on lining their pockets, it makes one despair of the example they're setting, and what values they're promoting.

The only way to stop these damaging abuses is to introduce unpopular countermeasures. For example, the only sure way to avoid the Peter Principle is to always treat promotion as provisional. It should become commonplace for people to be promoted and demoted many times in their working lives without stigma. People will have a more sensible attitude towards money if they know that their lucrative pay rise may soon revert to a lower amount. But which company would be brave enough to implement a policy of demotion that's every bit as rigorous as that for promotion? It would be anathema to most employees. Thus society effectively chooses a Peter Principle society, robbing it of any moral right to criticise the incompetent organisations that such a society invariably generates.

Special measures to identify people with psychopathic tendencies should be put in place. But would society approve of many seemingly successful and charming individuals being labelled as borderline psychopaths who should be prevented from ever gaining any position of power? (The notorious serial killer Ted Bundy was outwardly a nice, respectable, well-educated man. To the end, many gullible people thought he was innocent, or a 'good' man who'd gone tragically astray.)

Jonathan Swift declared, 'When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.' He forgot to mention the clones and the psychopaths too.