Professionalism/The Dilbert Principle

"In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."
-Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong[1]

"The basic concept of the Dilbert Principle is that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management."
-Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle[2]

According to Scott Adams, the workplace used to follow the Peter Principle in the 1980s. However, lately, the Peter Principle has given way to the Dilbert Principle. Under the Peter Principle managers make bad decisions, but they are at least informed decisions made from years of experience. However, in the Dilbert Principle employees are promoted to management when they cannot do anything else. This is where they can do the least amount of damage to the company. [2]

Dilbert, a comic strip known for its satirical humor about office life, is strongly based on the Dilbert Principle. "Dilbert appears in 2,000 newspapers in 70 countries, making it one of the most successful syndicated comic strips in history ... The Dilbert web site,, was the first syndicated comic strip to go online in 1995 and is the most widely read syndicated comic on the Internet." [3]

Scott AdamsEdit

Scott Adams "worked ... in a number of humiliating and low paying jobs, including teller (robbed twice at gunpoint), computer programmer, financial analyst, product manager, and commercial lender, to name a few." Adams describes his work at Pacific Bell, "My business card said engineer but I have never been an engineer by training. From 1989 until 1995 I worked my day job while doing the Dilbert comic strip mornings, evenings and weekends." Many of the characters in Dilbert are inspired by Adams' co-workers. On the About page of the Dilbert site he states, "Dilbert is a composite of my co-workers over the years. He emerged as the main character of my doodles. I started using him for business presentations and got great responses." [3]

Adams, a Certified Hypnotist, applies hypnotic principles to his comics. In his blog Adams states, "For example, Dilbert is designed using tricks I learned from hypnosis. The reason Dilbert has no last name, and the boss has no name, and the company has no name, and the town has no name is because of my hypnosis training. I remove all the obvious obstacles to imagining Dilbert works at your company. That seems to work." [4] In other words, when people read Dilbert, it is Adams' intention that they be able to see themselves in the comic.

The Office CharactersEdit

Each character in Dilbert is a professional, in that all are compensated for their work. The reader may note, however, that “professional” can be defined in many ways. By different definitions, some of the Dilbert characters are more “professional” than others. All of them live under the rule of the Dilbert Principle.

Pointy-Haired BossEdit

The Pointy-haired Boss is the perfect embodiment of the Dilbert Principle – his character has been promoted to management, where he can do the least damage to the company. This does not mean, however, that he’s incapable of stifling or misleading his employees. In comic after comic, he asks them to lie[5], to obscure the truth[6], and he discourages them from seeking additional training[7]. He significantly reduces the efficiency of his employees by destroying their morale. All of his employees, the other characters in the strip, handle this deficiency of morale in their own unique ways.


Another recurring character, Asok, is a brilliant engineering intern from the India Institute of Technology[8]. He is extremely gullible[9] and idealistic. Adams has fun with the latter quality through a week-long saga[10] in which Asok tries to stop a dangerous product from hitting the market. The series brings to mind the example of Rodney Rocha, who failed to contact senior management over an ultimately deadly safety flaw in the Columbia space shuttle. In contrast to Rocha, Asok does contact senior management, but because management obeys the Dilbert Principle, the response is “Hundreds will die… blah, blah, blah… Whatever. Forward the message to that pointy-haired guy”[11]. Although Asok took the initiative that Rodney Rocha did not, the result is the same: the safety flaw was not corrected. Even a conscientious employee doing everything in his power to protect customer safety is unable to overcome the obstacle that is Dilbertian management. Asok embodies all the qualities of a true “professional,” but he is no match for the Pointy-Haired Boss.


In a way, Wally is Asok’s foil. He is jaded[12] and lazy[13], the product of a long career working as an engineer under managers who obey the Dilbert Principle. To distract attention from his own lack of productivity, he thwarts the attempts of other employees to be useful contributors to the workplace. He even schemes to make them look bad to the Pointy-Haired Boss for things they didn't do[14]. In short, Wally has responded to years of utterly useless management by giving up and just getting by. He comes to work to get a paycheck, but takes no pleasure in doing his job. He is completely unprofessional in the context of integrity and respect for the work he should be doing.


Dilbert, the title character for the strip, is the most prominently featured engineer. He has responded to the Pointy-Haired Boss’ poor management by giving up on taking initiative[15]. He does exactly what he’s told to do, and he resigns himself to the fact that even when he follows management’s instructions, he’s bound to be a failure[16]. He is sarcastic in most of his interactions, but he does seem to get along with his coworkers. Dilbert maintains the respect of other employees. His work suffers from his apathy, though, as he never strives for excellence in engineering. Dilbert is a professional when it comes to being a great coworker, but he stumbles because he doesn't care about the quality of his work any more than Wally does.

Dilbert's workplace helplessness manifests itself in a more subtle way, as well: in the comic, he is always portrayed without a mouth. This may be Adams' way of symbolizing Dilbert's inability to truly communicate with anyone who can help him work toward his career goals - in a word: management.

In ResearchEdit

Both the Peter and Dilbert Principles have been questioned in scholarly literature. Doherty (2010) finds that comics and cartoons are most effective "in a taken-for-granted world, one which both the cartoonist and audience understand"[17]. Doherty identifies Dilbert as caricature, which she asserts focuses only on the negatives of a subject; Dilbert focuses on only the downside of working in an office, ignoring any positives, should they exist. Assuming Dilbert is a caricature, the strip shouldn't be considered a valid resource about office behavior, but merely an exaggeration of it. Lamons (1996) agrees with the assessment of Dilbert as a hyperbolic description of a real office, but allows that Adams has valid messages buried in the exaggerations[18].

Fairburn (2001) investigates why the Peter Principle exists, getting at its root contradiction - why promote someone out of a job where they perform well, and into a job they might not do well? He finds that, in the workplace, it is not in a worker's best interest "to generate a good performance in the first place," but rather "to effectively influence the manager when the time comes for performance evaluations"[19]. This is a perverse, upside down system, and runs contrary to the goal of encouraging employees to work well by offering them promotions. This is how Wally acts towards the Pointy-Haired Boss, constantly appearing valuable while diligently doing no work. As far as Wally's actions go, then, Dilbert is rooted in the real workplace.

The Dilbertian WorkplaceEdit

Scott Adams receives hundreds of emails every day from employees complaining about their incompetent managers, and strips' online comment sections are filled with stories affirming the comics' themes. These emails provide Adams with more than enough material to use in his comics. In a way, his comics provide a very real insight into the frustrating lives of employees working in the corporate world. One example email states, "A vice president insists that the company's new battery-powered product be equipped with a light that comes on to tell you when the power is off." This is one of Adams' favorite examples and is an inspiration for many of his comics. Adams believes that his characters' response to incompetent management is comparable to the way employees respond in real life. [20]

A post on Reddit shows that Dilbertian situations occur outside of Adams' scope. The user RamsesThePigeon comments, "Do not question The Board," describes an extremely complex, flawed system that workers are not allowed to question - even as it inspires theft. The commenter describes his boss' response to a suggestion for improving the system: "they had tried it [his] way, but that it had been too complicated." The workplace described in the comment is Dilbert to a tee, complete with a "labyrinth of half-height cubicles."[21] A parallel with Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss is easy to see. The commenter is venting his anger at being made to feel like an Asok for wanting to fix what he describes as such a miserably broken system.

While people readily identify with this sort of workplace, it is not necessarily the rule. Borowski (1998) points to the CEO of Malden Mills, Aaron Feuerstein, as an example of a non-Pointy-Haired Boss. [22] When the mill burned down, rather than doing the conventionally business-savvy thing and using the opportunity to start anew somewhere cheaper, Feuerstein made sure to pay all employees during the rebuilding and hire them all back. [23] This stands in contrast to Adams' Pointy-Haired Boss, who might intentionally burn down his building if the move could be profitable. Feuerstein was lauded in the media, and he was even personally congratulated by President Clinton. [24]

Lessons from DilbertEdit

While Dilbert may not be an exact representation of every aspect of the modern workplace, the Dilbert Principle shines a light on the relationship between professionalism and office ethics. According to Dilbert, the two are at odds with each other. In the case of the Reddit user, it is easy to see that any worker, especially under the influence of poor management, can feel like a Dilbert character sometimes. Dilbert seems so relevant because of workers' ability to identify with the plots and characters Scott Adams creates.

As can be seen in the Malden Mills case, however, not all workplaces obey the Dilbert Principle. Being a true professional means resisting the urge to completely become a Dilbert, a Wally, an Asok, or especially a Pointy-Haired Boss.



  1. "Peter, L., & Hull, R. (2011). The peter principle: Why things always go wrong. New York, NY: HarperCollins.". 
  2. a b [ Management-Afflictions/dp/0887308589 "Adams, S. (1997). The dilbert principle. New York, NY: HarperCollins."]. Management-Afflictions/dp/0887308589.  Invalid <ref> tag; name "The Dilbert Principle" defined multiple times with different content
  3. a b "Adams, S. (2013). About dilbert. Retrieved from". 
  4. "Adams, S. (2007, July 07). Hypnosis. Retrieved from". 
  5. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 1 August 2003,
  6. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 9 June 1999,
  7. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 16 November 2009,
  8. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 16 September 2003,
  9. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 13 April 2005,
  10. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strips on 27-31 January 2004, beginning with
  11. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 29 January 2004,
  12. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 16 November 2011,
  13. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 5 January 2004,
  14. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 30 December 2005,
  15. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 1 February 2013,
  16. Adams, S. Dilbert comic strip on 23 January 2013,
  17. Doherty, E. M. (2010). "Joking aside, insights to employee dignity in "Dilbert" cartoons: The value of comic art in understanding the employer -- employee relationship". Journal of Management Inquiry 20 (286). doi:10.1177/1056492610386114. 
  18. "'Dilbert's' funny, but not real.". 
  19. Fairburn, J. A., & Malcomson, J. M. (2001). "Performance, promotion, and the peter principle". Review of Economic Studies 68: 45-66. 
  20. "Adams, S. (1997). The dilbert principle. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Retrieved from". 
  21. "RamsesThePigeon (2013). Comment on Reddit post.". 
  22. "Borowski, P. J. (1998). Manager-employee relationships: Guided by Kant's categorical imperative or by Dilbert's business principle. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(15), 1623-1632.". 
  23. Ryan, Michael. "They Call Their Boss a Hero," Parade Magazine, September 8, 1996. 
  24. "Weinbach, Mendel. "They Call Their Boss a Hero." Ohr Somayach, 2005.".