Gervais Principle

Oct'2009: Venkatesh Rao on the Gervais Principle of Organizations (with credit to Hugh MacLeod's company hierarchy image (Losers/ClueLess/Sociopaths)). The “sociopath” layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The “clueless” layer is what William Whyte called the “OrganizationMan,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks... Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into Middle Management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves... 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.


Nov12: This helps us understand how the world works, but not how to work it. So let me introduce you to the main skill required here, mastery over the four major languages spoken in organizations, among sociopaths, losers and the clueless. I’ll call the four languages Posture Talk, Power Talk, Baby Talk and Game Talk...

  • Among themselves, losers speak a language called Game Talk. This is the only language that has been properly studied and documented. I won’t cover it at all, but you can learn all about it in the pop classics on TransactionalAnalysis.
  • Sociopaths and losers speak rarely to each other at all. One of the functions of the clueless, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure sociopath-loser organization. But when they do talk, they actually speak an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk if it were worth naming. It is the ordinary (if rare) utilitarian language of the sane, with no ulterior motives flying around. The mean-what-you-say-and-say-what-you-mean stuff between two people in a fixed, asymmetric Power relationship, who don’t want or need to play real or fake power games.
  • (Power Talk is the in-group language used amongst sociopaths.).. Irony and sarcasm are modes of layered communication available to anybody. As you’ll learn if you read the TransactionalAnalysis books, Game Talk is all about multiple (usually 2) levels of communication. What distinguishes Power Talk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other. Power Talk in other words, is a consequential language. When the clueless or losers talk, on the other hand, nothing moves... In Power Talk, you play with money (the currency is most often reality-information). In the other languages you are playing with no stakes. The most important enabling factor in being able to speak Power Talk is simply the possession of table stakes. Without it, whatever you say is Posture Talk.
  • The bulk of sociopath communication takes places out in the open, coded in Powertalk, right in the presence of non-sociopaths... As the David-Jim example shows, sociopaths are in fact more careful in private. Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for sociopaths, conditions of Conflict Of Interest and Moral Hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations.
  • So 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. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. 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. Evil sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the clueless, of course, avoid individual Moral decisions altogether.
  • Why can’t you learn sociopath tactics from a book or Wikipedia? It is not that the tactics themselves are misguided, but their application by non-sociopaths is usually useless for three reasons.

Feb04: So here goes, a (very pictorial) survey of the ancestry of the Hugh MacLeod hierarchy and the Gervais Principle. This is not Part III. It is another side trip.

Apr14: In this part, we’ll use a somewhat unorthodox take on the idea of Arrested Development to explain why the three groups behave as they do, and use that to predict the outcomes of individual interpersonal interactions.

  • Well-adjustedness is a measure of the degree to which your worldview is socially acceptable and appropriate in a given environment. Since a messed-up personality can be well-adjusted with respect to a messed-up environment, well-adjustedness has very little to do with sanity and actual mental health... The “mental health” industry is designed to manufacture well-adjustedness, not cure arrested development. This is partly because lack of well-adjustedness is easier to detect, measure and fix. But that is a minor reason. The major reason is that well-adjustedness is a definable and economically useful commodity that is relatively cheap to manufacture. The fix for arrested development is none of those things... Environments and worldviews really come down to a series of situations and situational reactions. If your situational reactions are generally appropriate but against your best interests, you are a well-adjusted loser. If they are both appropriate and in your best interests, you are a sociopath. If your reactions are inappropriate (whether or not they are in your best interests — sometimes they are), you are clueless.
  • The Three Laws of Arrested Development: 1 Your development is arrested by your strengths, not your weaknesses. 2.Arrested-development behavior is caused by a strength-based addiction. 3.The mediocre develop faster than either the talented or the untalented.
  • Recall that cluelessness goes with overperformance. That overperformance is caused by arrested development around a strength, which has been hooked by an addictive environment of social rewards. Mediocrity is your best defense against addiction, and guarantor of further open-ended psychological development. And yes, for the alert among you who have spotted a connection, arrested development is the dark side of strengths in the sense of Positive Psychology. A strength in one situation is merely an entrenched piece of arrested development in another.
  • In our model, the three development stages – clueless, losers and sociopaths – correspond to different patterns of arrested development and different strength-addictions. Each pattern is based on a preferred, dominant variety of delusion: 1.The clueless distort reality. 2.The losers distort rewards and penalties. 3.The sociopaths distort the metaphysics of human life.
  • Throughout this part, I’ve used economics terms like “winning/losing”, “zero-sum,” and “interpersonal debt,” but keep in mind that all this is Monopoly money unless a sociopath is involved. The language of winning and losing and debts is useful for all interactions, but it is only consequential, and capable of causing Power shifts, when sociopaths are involved.

Oct14: new segment.

  • Social Clubs of any sort divide the world into an us and a them. We are better than them. Any prospective new member who could raise the average prestige of a club is by definition somebody who is too good for that club. So how do social groups form at all, given Marx’s paradox? The answer lies in the idea of status illegibility, the fuzziness of the status of a member of any social group (Status Game). This is governed by what I will call Marx’s laws of status illegibility... I am not saying that there is a ranking that is just not known or knowable. I am saying there is no clear ranking to be known. (Legibility)
  • Status illegibility is the key to the Marx paradox, and the foundation of every other aspect of loser group dynamics (which is also all group dynamics, since forming groups is a loser activity). (Group Forming?!?)
  • Why is status illegibility central to group stability? How is it created and maintained? How do you know if you can join a group, and how do you go about doing so? What games do you play, when, and how? Why play these games and form groups anyway?
  • Loser above-averageness is generally not based on an outright falsehood. Unlike Michael’s pretensions to comic genius, which are strictly not true, Pam really is the best artist in the group. The delusion lies not in a false assessment of her artistic skills, but in the group choosing to evaluate her on the basis of art in the first place. In other words, losers are too smart to fool themselves. They enter into social contracts which require them to fool each other.
  • So all the social dynamics are about maintaining a delicate balance between mutual reinforcement of unique life scripts and comforting status uncertainty on the one hand (which requires status illegibility), and fighting veiled battles over sex, money and power (which fuel the engines of group value creation).
  • Legibility is controlled by pulling individuals down or up through games, the adoption and abandonment of specific games, and the formation and break-up of sub-groups through open conflict (often catalyzed by external sociopaths).
  • here does the group get this power to pull down high-fliers and pull-up the unfortunate? How can sub-groups be created or destroyed? How can games be retired and new games introduced? Groups achieve all these effects by withholding or awarding evidence of Social Proof... Besides humor, capacity for skillful expressions of sympathy, praise, teasing and criticism are other social skills.
  • Among the sociopaths, status is irrelevant. Table stakes and skill at using them is what matters. Sociopaths pay attention to what you have, and how well you bargain with it. Not who you are. But among losers, status is real, and it matters. Within the limits of the status illegibility required for group stability, status churns through skilled Game Talk interactions.
  • We’ve been drilling deep into social dynamics, and we finally get to that one deeply human quality that makes all this possible. It’s called empathy. The ability to feel what another human being is feeling... Not only can you do this, you will actually feel good doing this. This feeling is called happiness. I don’t have time to go into this, but happiness is entirely a social phenomenon, and there’s plenty of evidence that the best way (and from my reading, the only way) to get happy is to get sociable. Non-social feelings that seem like happiness turn out, upon further examination, to be distinct emotions like contentment, equanimity or hedonistic pleasure. (Authentic Happiness)

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