The Gervais Principle: Summary & Review

the gervais principle

The Gervais Principle (2009-2013) is a series of 6 blog posts in which Venkatesh Rao develops a dark theory of business organizations centered around a sociopathic leadership on top that manipulates and exploits the two lower layers of middle management -the clueless simpletons-, and employees -the lowest paid losers-.

Exec Summary

  • Organizations are intrinsically pathological, not “possibly so” as in the exceptional case of a few bad organizations, but pathological as the norm
  • There are three levels of corporate org chart, and only the top sees the truth, and wins
    1. Sociopaths: the power-aware leaders at the top
    2. Clueless: the high-conscientiousness middle management
    3. Losers: the lower-level employees, “losers” in an economical sense
  • Becoming a top-dog sociopath is an awakening process, of seeing the manipulation, going through some nihilism, and then using that knowledge to win at life
Gervais principle org chart infographic
From Ashok Vaishnav

FULL SUMMARY

About the Author:
Venkatesh Rao is a writer and consultant. He writes the Ribbonfarm blog, and is the author of Tempo, a book on decision-making. Rao holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering (2003) from the University of Michigan and at the time of writing resides in Los Angeles.

Intro: Organizational Psychology From a TV Show

The Gervais Principle lays out a theoretical framework of organizational socio-dynamics.

It says that organizations are inherently pathological, and divides employees into Machiavellian sociopaths at the top -the owners and shareholders-, high-conscientiousness and loyal company men in the middle -the “clueless overperformers”-, and those who try to slack off and get by with the least work at the bottom -the “losers”-.

Rao teases out his model by analyzing and drawing from the TV series “The Office“, an American sitcom of 9 seasons, but implies that the model applies to most business organizations.

The Gervais Principle In Brief

In brief, the “Gervais Principle” is:

Sociopaths promote over-performing losers into middle-management so they’ll break their back for the company, groom under-performing high-power and Machiavellian losers into sociopaths to lead the organization, and leave the low-power, power-unaware average bare-minimum-effort losers at the bottom to do the menial work.

The Business Life Cycle

From Ribbonfarm

The business life cycle in the Gervais model works like this:

  1. A sociopath has an idea or wants to start a business
  2. Recruits losers to start: losers are more abundant and require less money
  3. Hires clueless as middle management to run the company, or else the company would quickly implode
  4. Clueless middle management grows if the business goes well
  5. Sociopaths and losers start exiting when the company matures and hits diminishing returns: the sociopaths milk the business for cash as much as possible with mergers, acquisitions, stock buybacks, and layoffs. The losers start exiting because they focus on good feelings and enter and exit reactivaley, following economy trends, or based on feelings and finding fulfillment whenever they can

The 3 Profiles: Losers, Clueless, Sociopaths

The organizational structure in The Gervais Principle is rather simple:

1. Sociopaths

These are the guys at the top.
Says the author:

The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,”

2. Clueless

The clueless make more money than the losers, but are often even blinder to reality.

That shouldn’t be too surprising since the clueless are not given middle-level management roles because of their smarts, but because of their hard work and (misplaced) loyalty -which, the author, says is a consequence of their cluelessness-.

Clueless men are clueless to all power dynamics, including emotional ones.
With a few examples from The Office, the author says they’re stuck in emotional dependency based on external approval, be it from their boss/mother figure (child level), token symbols of appreciation (pre-adolescent badges from teachers and coaches), and peers’ approval (adolescent level, “sitting with the cool kids”).

To better understand emotional power dynamics and dependence or independence from external validation, see:

3. Losers

The name “loser” is mostly economical, in the sense that they have struck a bad bargain, giving up capitalist risk-taking for steady but meager paychecks.

Many losers are feelings-driven and like to feel good about their lives.
Instead of power-driven like the top-dog sociopaths, they are happiness seekers.

Many losers are more power-aware than clueless middle-management, and that is why, if they cannot find personal fulfillment, they avoid working too much: they know that the system is rigged and the pay-offs don’t justify the overwork.
Instead, he pays his bare minimum dues, gives little but also does not ask for much. And he finds meaning elsewhere, outside of work.

Losers also don’t have much loyalty to the company, albeit they can be loyal to individuals.

3.2. Future sociopath losers

Many sociopaths were formers losers.

List other losers, the future sociopath recognizes that he’s in a bad bargain.
Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he has no intention of just getting by and collecting the crumbles.

The author, and here we disagree, says that the future sociopath severely under-performs to free up energy into political maneuvering and upward exit.
He knows that high-levels of under-performance are not sustainable in the long-run, but he takes a calculated risk of “quick up, or quick out”.

My Note: Bad As Systemic Theory, But Fantastic Explanation of How Some Actual Sociopaths Think & Act
Overall, the explanation of how losers make it into the high-leadership rank is not very generalizable.
However, in a few cases of actual sociopaths, it’s exactly how it works.
I’ve personally witnessed this dynamic in action -and it’s in Power University, together with how I handled it to win-.

Why hard-working clueless make good middle-management

This was one of my favorite insights, and something I had also noticed:

So why is promoting over-performing Losers logical?
The simple reason is that if you over-perform at the Loser level, it is clear that you are an idiot. You’ve already made a bad bargain, and now you’re delivering more value than you need to, making your bargain even worse.
Unless you very quickly demonstrate that you know your own value by successfully negotiating more money and/or power, you are marked out as an exploitable clueless Loser.

Clueless make for good watchdogs and kapos

The hard-working clueless are worth more in the middle to the top leaders.

And, albeit the author never says it, their (misplaced) loyalty and high conscientiousness also make them great watchdogs and enforcers on the owners’ behalf.

Since they don’t aim at the top, their top is already in the middle -plus, they’re conveniently zero competition for those already at the top, who don’t have to fear being replaced or leapfrogged-.

So the clueless have a strong interest in defending the status quo.
Since they look beneath rather than upward, they feel they’re getting a great deal, and they (mistakenly) think the company supports them. They also feel better and better off than the losers, so they have an entrenched interest to defend the company for their own well-being.

Wanting to keep things as they are and fearful the loser might cost the company with their slacking off, they’ll patrol the premises, watch over the low-level employees, protect company property, and parrot the company’s line and values.
They make for good Kapos.

Becoming Sociopaths = Becoming Aware

Sociopaths are power aware.

But they weren’t born power-aware.
They realize with time -today, some might call it “taking the red pill“-.

But they’re smart and already Machiavellian-bent.
So they quickly understand the game. The corporate manipulations, the leader’s manipulations, the conflicts of interest… They know that at the powerless bottom you get the feel-good slap on the back… And the crumbles left by those at the top.

And they don’t want to play by those rules.

Some of what they discover is saddening and makes them cynical and nihilistic.
However, says the author, in that process of discovery there is the key to their power:

They find that in the unsatisfying meanings they uncover, lie the keys to power over others. In seeking to penetrate mediated experiences of reality, they unexpectedly find themselves mediating those very realities for others.

Also read:

Power-Awareness Makes The Difference

The whole Gervais Principle is based on power awareness.

And that’s one of the things that makes it so good.
The author explains this concept via Plato’s cave allegory:

The image is derived from Plato’s allegory of the cave, which I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that it divides people into those who get how the world really works (the Sociopaths and the self-aware slacker Losers) and those who don’t (the over-performer Losers and the Clueless in the middle).

Personally, I wouldn’t say it’s just awareness though.
I think the level of one’s self-confidence, drive, as well as cynicism, make a huge difference.
So the aware and driven may also work hard to reach higher.
And the aware but cynic may self-harm himself by slacking off while with just a bit more work and a better attitude, he may have been promoted much faster and much higher.

But the author he’s also 100% right, power-awareness does make a huge difference.

Not just power dynamics, by the way, but including awareness of social and value exchanges, as well as manipulation dynamics.

The 4 Languages of The Gervais Principle

Source Ribbonfarm
  • Powertalk: consequential, it changes the power dynamics and the relative status of individuals who engage in it

Power talk is the only language that changes things -“playing with real money”- while all the other forms of communication are for shooting the breeze, for self-soothing, or to make people feel better.

  • Posturetalk: it’s the talk of those who wish they were high-power sociopaths. Clueless use it in the more superficially macho (finance) industries, or industries with some actual danger -but that still doesn’t make the posture-talker a power player-.

    For example, it’s Joe Pesci in the movie “Goodfellas”: he’s a truly dangerous character, but he’s not cut for being a real top-dog power player. Or it’s the “alpha male posturing” who tries too hard to have others believe he’s a top dog
  • Babytalk: leaves power relations unchanged because its entire purpose is to help Losers put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts
  • Gametalk: it does not affect relations because its entire purpose is to make Losers feel OK about themselves and validate do-nothing life scripts.
    It’s the only language that’s been studied (see transaction analysis texts such as “Games People Play“, “I’m OK You’re OK“, and “What Do You Say after You Say Hello”).

Albeit Venkatesh Rao says that gametalk is the only language that’s been studied, I think this website changed that.

Today The Power Moves also addressed all other languages, especially powertalk -this is why LOF, the person who recommended me this book, said that this website provides the practical applications of “The Gervais Principle”-.

Power Talk: How The Top 1% Talks

Power talk negotiates power.

It means that the power between two people who engage in power talk slightly shifts with each exchange.
One may lose if he yields ground, or one may gain.
But it doesn’t mean one has always to lose. Sometimes both can gain slightly, and sometimes that happens at the expense of a loser.

Power talk is the only language that negotiates power, status, value, and money.
And if you cannot speak power talk and speak with someone who can, they’ll take all your value for nothing.
Says the author:

If you are Clueless or a Loser and accidentally acquire some leverage (like when Phyllis learns of the Angela-Dwight affair), but can’t speak Powertalk, the old adage applies: a fool and his money are soon parted

Also read:

And:

Power Talk Is In The Open

Power talk happens in the open, also in front of losers and clueless.

This is contrary to what you may see in some movies where the sociopaths retreat to talk among themselves.
In truth, sociopaths don’t need to retreat because losers and clueless wouldn’t understand anyway.

The talk is coded because it happens mostly at the subtext level anyway.

As a matter of fact, sociopaths are far more guarded in private when talking to other sociopaths.
In private, they are in scheming mode, including self-defense. Says the author: “they must be wary of sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks”.

Power Talk: Case Studies

Power talk is all about “playing the social game” at advanced level.

And that includes the sub-text and sub-communication that go beyond the exact words and literal meaning.

Clueless folks only understand the literal meaning.
The losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk.
The power-aware sociopaths instead communicate the most via the sub-text.

Here’s an example from the show:

Wallace: So what’s up with Jan and Michael? (<—- fishing for information)
Jim: “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)
Wallace: (laughs in return)

The literal communication is that it’s a complex situation, but the real communication is in the sub-communication.
Here is some of the sub-communication of this exchange in the author’s analysis:

  1. Power awareness by reading his true motives: “I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned”
  2. Power awareness via plausible deniability: “I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability“. You cannot prove that Jim actually confirmed Wallace’s suspicions and, better yet, you cannot prove that Jim says anything about Jan and Michael relationship
  3. Power awareness by showcasing the “powertalk” skills: “This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk
  4. Power awareness and personal power by maintaining power through information withholding: “I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so over-awed that I am giving it all up for free
  5. Personal power by remaining high-power: “I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you  that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me
    This is one of the main reasons why you want to learn to talk high-power: you almost automatically gain the respect of the high-power folks
  6. Personal power & strategic approach to social exchanges by assessing him and asking something back: “You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?”
  7. Power awareness via flexible non-committal: “I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits

A person who is low in power awareness (low cognitive power) and low-power in terms of behavior (low power behavior) would have been so gratified by the attention of the high-power sociopath, that he would have gotten nervous, spoken at length, and spilled all the beans (and more).
Wallace, the high-power sociopath, would have taken the all the information he wanted, and walked away without paying.
Such as, the low-power guy would have entered a win-lose exchange with the sociopath where he’d be the sucker of that sucker’s trade.

Case Study: Loser Jan Fails Power Talk

This is an example from the original Gervais Principle:

Jan: (lowball offer)
Michael: Jan… After all we’ve been through…” (with a hurt, puppy-dog look in his eyes)

Michael feels betrayed. He has no idea that salary negotiation is a different game and he must play the (appropriate) part.
Plus, he’s not enough emotionally in control to hold back.

Even more telling, a little later Jan even gives up playing the professional HR. Michale just can’t play ball with the power talk: he’s clueless. So she resorts to baby talk to handle him -and, in real life, would lose all attraction for him-.

How to Learn Power Talk

The big question now:

How do you learn it?

The author says you can’t learn it from books, or online.
If you try to learn it from books, you merely expand your posturetalk vocabulary.

The author says that an example is Michael reading stuff on the Internet and then acting and looking even lower power and more ridiculous by applying it poorly:

This was a GREAT insight by the author.
Albeit the scene of course is exaggerated as in most movies, the concept is very realistic.
There have been a few people who first show up on this website after reading books like “The 48 Laws of Power” or some red pill alpha male book and then act like idiots trying to incorporate this or that rule or technique.
However, on this website, it’s not that many (because I like to think we teach things properly here). But if you peruse subreddits dedicated to power and strategies, you’ll find them by the boatloads.
Also see:

The author says that the same effect happens when socially-unskilled folks start using scripts from resources such as “assertive communication“, “nonviolent communication” or “verbal judo“.

They just come off as weird, make their speaking partner even more enraged, and lose out even bigger.
This is the example from the original “The Gervais Principle”:

Phyllis: (trying out Google tips) How does that make you feel
Angela: (with icy sarcasm) I feel angry. Angry at you for doing something stupid, angry at me for believing you could do something not stupid

Albeit not in the original Gervais Principle, this example is even better.
Angela uses the perfect approach for the situation, but only OK words, terrible delivery, and even worse frame control after Phylli’s scathing reply.

When normally passive, submissive, or clueless people start using high-power, assertive, or strategic communication, they haven’t internalized it or understood it yet, so they come across as stilted and fake, and they irk and annoy others even more.

And when it comes to “list of power rules“, the author also says:

Just knowing whatever few rules exist is of no real use, it’s merely a basic condition of participation.

You can learn sociopath behavior and power talk from the mafia

Says the author:

Goodfellas is great fun of course, but not as easily translated to non-criminal workplaces. (…) Though distant from our worlds, criminal worlds have the one advantage that they do not need to maintain the fiction that the organization is not pathological, so they are revealing to study.

Indeed, this is also the reason why this website delved into mafia and mafia-like organizations for learning.
You can also see:

The quickest way to learn powertalk

So the quickest way to learn powertalk -and general high power behavior-, is Power University:

MORE WISDOM

Power players use meta-communication, all others miss it

It’s true that power players talk differently.

Reardon also calls it “the Secret Handshake” with which power players recognize each other.

But overall, it’s an extremely tiny minority that seems to recognize this principle.
I’m glad that someone else also pointed it out because this part of what this website and Power University do: allow people to access that higher level of communication.

Effective men must learn to act like sociopaths

Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation.
(…)
Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality.

We also agree with it.
In many ways, this is what this website and Power University do: make good sociopaths.

Sociopaths respect the law in appearance, but break it in spirit

Something we also noted in our Machiavellian thinking article:

Effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members.
What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities.

CRITICISM

There’s so much golden in “The Gervais Principle” that I wanted to change this section from “criticism” to “limitations”.

However, to keep the standard across all our reviews, I kept the original name.

Great wisdom, but imperfect representation of reality

The Gervais Principle is neat and simple.

Just 3 classes of people, and all quite homogenous.

Since reality is obviously complex, variegated, and full of exceptions and shades of grey, that already tells you a lot about how truly explanatory a simple model can be.

An important in terms of explanatory power is this:

The Gervais Principle stops at the cynical level

The Gervais Principle is great, in part, because it addresses the darker side of social and organizational dynamics.

And that part, high in self-interest, manipulation, and predation, is what’s most often (conveniently) left out and omitted from most other sources.
However, reality is not only manipulation and predation. Success is also, at least in part and at least sometimes, meritocracy, adding value, solving problems, and improving lives.

And while The Gervais Principles is an interesting take on the “dark side” of organizational dynamics, it stops there.
Anything that stops at the cynical and dark side is, at best, 50% of reality -and, in some of the best and healthiest organizations, less than 50%-.

Sometimes a bit simplistic

Of course, even just a mere 50% of reality is still extremely complex.

And since “The Gervais Principle” is a brief series of six average-length blog posts, sometimes even the “darker” side is a bit simplistic.

For example the general division of organizational layers into 3 simple categories is simplistic.
In that sense, it’s not too different from Marx’s original analysis: bright, in many ways, but utterly simplistic. Even in Marx’s days, capitalists and proletariat weren’t monolithic blocks. And, even more importantly, there weren’t any “group-level” virtues and sins.

Some as much as capitalists weren’t all greedy and exploitative, so leaders and founders aren’t all high-power sociopaths -just for one, Elon Musk is bright and driven, but very different than the author’s description of a sociopath.

Some of the dynamics of promotions and advancement are also simplistic, for example:

Not true that only the least competent go up

The author says:

The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the Sociopath level.

That’s pretty much blatantly not always true.
Some highly Machiavellian people can be competent at their job. Or, at least, they may not necessarily be the least competent ones, as the author generalizes.

For just an example that disproves The Gervais Principle, also see Jordan Peterson’s example in Beyond Order of what can happen when you drop the cynicism, and instead focus on adding value.
A lowly server decided to take JP’s message to heart and work as hard and well as he could. And he got 3 promotions in 6 months. Plus, he went from being a disgruntled cynic, to a happy man

CONS

Gets a bit too theoretical / Freudian / Assumptive at times

After the second installment/post there was still plenty of great wisdom.
But it becomes a bit more “depth psychology“, with lots of interpretations, little data, and less practical applications.

Group dynamics theory from “The Gervais Principle IV” is less convincing

The fourth installment of “The Gervais Principle” also contains genius spark of insights.

I partially agree with the concept of “status illegibility” in the middle, and indeed it’s one of the issues that leads to endless games among turkeys and social climbers.
But, overall, I wasn’t fully convinced.

Edit:

TV show sometimes retrofitted to make sense of favorite narrative

At times I had the feeling the author has an (often good) insight in mind, and seeks a way to apply it to the show.

For example, he implies that in the show the totem pole of the clueless is “purposefully stacked in the wrong order”.
But I wondered if it was “purposefully inverted”, or if it was more a case of “wanting to fit one’s theory to the object of analysis” (usually “reality”, but in this case, the show).

PROS

The first two installments are TPM-level genius insight.

the gervais principle

REVIEW

The first two installments of “The Gervais Principle” -hierarchy and communication modes- are genius.

And it has lots f overlap with this website, including power dynamics, sub-text communication, power awareness VS too naive players (even referring to “power literacy“), and also a similar use of financial terms to describe social exchanges (zero-sum, win-lose, currency, etc.).

LOF from the forum first recommended me this book.

And it’s packed with genius insights.
So much so, that I learned quite a bit. The Gervais Principle connected a few dots for me, and it even improved this website’s offering.

The downside is that the analysis is limited to the dark side, and that the sparkles are not always perfectly connected.
Also, albeit it never was its aim, it does not deliver practical insights for the reader on how to use the information for personal advancement -or even career advancement-.

Indeed, LOF told me something like:

When I stumbled upon ThePowerMoves.com I realized this was like the practical version of Gervais Principle, turning that wisdom into how-to guides, strategies, and techniques.

I think that, in many ways, that was a good assessment.

In that sense, we can highly recommend the Gervais Principle -and it even entered several of our “best resources list”, including the popular “best manipulation books“-.
Also read:

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.

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