The Incompetent Leader Stereotype: A Look at the Dilbert Principle
“Leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow“.
Not the nicest sounding description of a leader, eh?
The Dilbert Principle of Leadership
The Dilbert Principle was devised by Scott Adams, the man who created the Dilbert comics. In short, the principle states that companies tend to promote the most incompetent employees to management as a form of damage control. The principle argues that leaders, specifically those in middle management, are in reality the ones that have little effect on productivity. In order to limit the harm caused by incompetent employees who are actually not doing the work, companies make them leaders.
This may or may not be true, but more important is to recognize the perception that leaders are sometimes seen as incompetent. Further than that, as a leader, it would be wise to counter this perception.
How it happens
The Incompetent Leader Stereotype often hits new leaders, specifically those who have no prior experience in a particular field. Often times, leaders who have been transferred from other departments are viewed as mere figureheads, rather than actual leaders who have knowledge of the work situation.
Failure to prove technical capability can also lead to a leader being branded incompetent. This is especially true during the initial phase of taking over the reins of leadership. During this period, impressions are made and individuals are naturally judgmental. Inability to show understanding of a situation, or even speak the work language can be construed as incompetency.
Why it’s bad
Being a victim of the incompetent leader stereotype isn’t a mere affliction on your feelings; it brings tangible problems with it. Firstly, no one takes you seriously. Your ability to insert input into projects is hampered when your followers actively disregard anything you say as fluff. This is especially true if you are in middle management, where your power as a leader is limited.
Secondly, your chances of rising ranks are curtailed. If viewed as an incompetent leader by your followers, your superiors are unlikely to entrust you with further projects which have more impact.
How to get over it
Know when to concede. As a leader, no one expects you to be competent in every area; though basic knowledge of every section you are leading is necessary. Readily admitting incompetency in certain areas will take out the impact out of it when others paint you as incompetent.
Prove competency somewhere. Quickly establish yourself as having some purpose in the workplace, rather than being a mere picture of tokenism. This can be done by personally involving yourself in certain projects if you have the technical know-how, or functioning as a connection between all the other members of the workplace by relaying and organizing information as needed. However, avoid being pictured as too intrusive or over-eager to prove yourself.
Finally, get a feel of the workplace. Different groups of workers have different ways of doing things. Understanding their work language, workplace norms and habits are all parts of being viewed as an actual leader. Making the mistake of not understanding fundamental terms or components in a workplace can destroy your credibility as a competent leader.
Being viewed as a mere token in the workplace is more than merely degrading, your entire career is at the risk of being branded a façade. Taking a few tactical steps at the start of your leadership tenure will go a long way to counter the infamous Dilbert stereotypes of managers and leaders.