Do Intelligent People End Up Working For Stupid People?

It seems that there is the perception out there that most people’s bosses aren’t as intelligent as they are.

For example, in many disciplines there is an aphorism that goes “The ‘A’ students teach, and the ‘B’ students work for the ‘C’ students.”

In a popular comic strip, ‘Dilbert’, a recurring theme is that the manager is a clueless nincompoop.

This could be a reflection of the ‘Peter Principle’, which states that in a hierarchically-structured administration, people tend to be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

Do you think there is any truth to this? Why would this be the case??


I expect it happens sometimes. I also expect it’s a matter of perception. I’ve had bosses establish policies that had all of us working grunts wondering “What can he be thinking??” - only to learn later how the perceived bonehead policy was, in fact, part of a bigger picture.

I had one boss who, according to old-timers, was an excellent engineer, but as a manager, he was worthless. He wasn’t stupid - he was just in the wrong job. Such is life in the workplace.

In my experience, people with an average skill set and better than average sales and people skills tend to rise higher in the organization than outstanding skill sets with below average sales or people skills.

Not that those employees aren’t important, but the managers know where their strengths lie.

I’ve worked at three organizations that were headed by a 2-headed team – one with the “vision” and one with day-to-day managerial skills. It didn’t matter who was officially at the top of the ladder, one didn’t make a move without the other.

I have seen rare examples of the Peter Principle, but in every case, that person was either moved back down to an area of competence, or flat-out fired.

As you rise higher in an organization, what you know becomes less important than how well you get other people to get things done.

If the ‘Peter Principle’ is true, then I am the most incompetent person alive. six years, and still at the bottom of the heirarchy. Gawd it sucks.
Thanks for the encouragement.

LOL…I have to say yes right now. My immediate supervisor is just plain out stupid. She can’t spell and it drives me nuts. Our director has a very impressive vocabulary and she tries to use some of his “big” words in her emails. It’s almost funny how bad they are misspelled. She also cannot spell one of my co-workers names…even though they have both worked here for 3+ years and everyone’s names are posted all around the office.

She also can’t pronounce many of the words she tries to use to make herself sound more intelligent.

Ahh…what a great reminder of why I hate my job and would shovel out barns for the same pay.

Though he’s more qualified than I am, I’m smarter than my boss, and way more skilled at most things.

However, I’m a disorganized fuck, and he’s very good at keeping track of things. As such, I like the arrangement, as he keeps me in line. If he weren’t my inferior in the food chain, I probably wouldn’t get half my tasks done, because I’m a terrible manager of my time.

Yea, I think the Peter Principle is sound. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know and how much you schmooze.

This may be at least part of the answer. I’ve worked for many excellent engineers–so excellent, in fact, that they were noticed by upper management, and duly promoted.

Problem was that while their engineering skills were great, their people-management skills were not. Moreover, their enthusiasm for engineering did not match their enthusiasm (or lack of it) for mundane, run-of-the-mill everyday clerical and/or management tasks: scheduling and approving vacations, writing and delivering performance appraisals, ordering supplies, arranging status meetings, signing timesheets, and so on.

I think we’re still dealing with the kind of mentality that was prevalent in the days when people stayed at one job for 40 years, starting at the bottom and rising up the ladder gradually. Promotions were rewards–they brought raises, and prestige too, since one was joining management. But nowdays, when people want to be the best widget designer possible but have no aspirations for management, the traditional model no longer applies, and problems occur when one of these types is promoted (whether they want it or not) into management.

Oh, and the Peter Principle must be accurate. Otherwise, why would I have spent my career at the bottom? :smiley:

Isn’t this just the Dilbert Principle? “Stupid people are promoted to management so they don’t interfere with the smart folks, who have to do the actual work.” :wink:

When I cycle into teaching organizational psychology, we often talk about the prinicples that go into good management. In a perfect world two manager teams would be the absolute best thing for a company. One with the directional vision and the other with the people skills to deal with everyday employees.
In my opinion this is best.

The problem with most workplaces is that you are asking people to do stuff that is disagreeable, difficult or unpleasant in some way, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. For this they get money, and very little else, and nowadays, not all that much money.

Even agreeable work gets boring after a couple of years, and VERY boring after many years. What is good for the corporation is very often bad for the people who work for it. So even if you have great people management skills, you have problems keeping people happy. Most managers have mediocre people skills at best. So most workers are unhappy. It’s not the manager’s fault, they are in an impossible situation.

The real assholes tend to be the type As who start up companies and run them. They can and do fuck people over good.

In a perfect world, I’d agree. But with two managers, you’re going to run into some territorial pissing contests and conversations like this:

“But Phil told me to do X”
“Well, Phil isn’t here! You do it my way!”

Another issue, sometimes the smart people don’t want to be management.

I work with a woman who is very bright. She reports directly to a Senior VP. And she is not “management” and will never be “management.” They’d promote her in a second, she has just turned them down repeatedly. Why? She doesn’t want the headaches of managing people - especially people less bright than she is. She enjoys the challenges of her job - without having to worry about departmental plans and budgets and performance appraisals - much less performance improvement plans and budget cuts and having a goal to do with no resources. In other words, she’s bright enough to realize she is better off where she is.

When I was in the ETO we 1st and 2nd Lieutenants knew exactly where the squadron, group and wing commanders were making their mistakes and what they should do instead. And we hoped that General Vandenberg, 9th Air Force commander, would stop by some time so we could straighten him out also.

There isn’t much doubt that people sometimes get promoted to jobs that they aren’t suited for. But I doubt that they last as long as the pointy-haried boss in Dilbert.

And I’m pretty sure that competent people will not work for an incompetent very long unless the job market is really tight.

Gosh, but there’s a lot of griping about bosses. Personally, I’ve been both a not-boss and a boss. Being a boss is more difficult. I’m very good at my job and it would be so easy to say “Here, let ME do it.” As a boss, that’s not my job. My job is to encourage, nurture, mentor and assist so that the people under me will grow and become rich and famous. This is often more frustrating and time-consuming than simply doing it yourself in the short term, but stupid in the long term.

As a boss, I also have the job of protecting my people from the shit that other managers want to throw at them. Half my day I spend telling them, “no, that’s unreasonable”, “no, that’s not going to happen” and “piss off, we’re much too busy.”

I, too, have a boss. Happily, she’s one of the smartest and fairest people I know.

I have nothing but sympathy for all you pissed-on, pissed-off grunts with crappy bosses. Perhaps you should consider changing jobs? Not all bosses are a-holes.

  • PW

I’ve seen the stupid boss – smart employee situation arise in education frequently. Sometimes someone who is not very bright and not very good at teaching chooses to get out of the classroom and return to school to take courses in administration.

Um, just for the record, by every conceivable indication, the job market IS tight, very tight, and likely to remain so for some time to come.

When I have been an administrator, I have chosen to keep the smart people doing their jobs. Why take someone away from something he’s good at, just to put him in a job I don’t know if he can do or not?

Of course, then it becomes a matter of keeping management off the smart people’s backs and out of their way. This is still better than taking the smart people away from the things they do best. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the most common reward for doing your job well is more and harder work.

When I have been a manager, though, it has often been a pain in the bahonkus. I am caught between two situations: the day to day realities of what the great mass of employees are doing and MUST do to keep the company rolling… and the desires of upper management or administration, which sometimes directly conflict with what keeps the entire show afloat.

“I don’t care how you do it, just get X accomplished by thus and such a date!”

Administrators like this are the worst thing management can have to deal with. Furthermore, we live in an age where administration often has little or no clue about what the actual employees do … the basis of the Dilbert cartoons. SURE, they’re going to look like idiots!

My father-in-law worked for the Air Force in the sixties, developing programming for NORAD. Back then, “computer programming” involved working at a desk with a pad and paper, thinking up code and writing it down, and correcting it, and handing it off to the punchcard people, who would then input it into the system.

In short, my father-in-law sat at a desk all day, leaning back, thinking hard, with his feet propped on his desk, occasionally sitting up suddenly and scribbling madly on a pad… and then leaning back to stare into nowhere and think some more. This was his job. This was what he did for a living.

It drove his supervisors apeshit. They couldn’t tell if their department was actually working, or simply goldbricking…

…which is where a lot of managers and supervisors stand today, as some of the basic jobs of our society become more and more esoteric.

My father-in-law was lucky. His supervisors didn’t interfere with him; his work was too important. We had to beat the Russkies, you know!

…but today, in the private sector, a great many managers and administrators aren’t that smart.

That isn’t what the Peter Principle says.

In general I think most bosses are as smart or smarter than those who work for them, but as has already been pointed out, it’s a different skill set. There are people in my organization doing the revenue-generating work, who are very smart and good at their jobs, who could not possibly manage a lemonade stand.

The manager and the employee have different responsiblities. They aren’t expected to have the same skills. Many (most?) employees will look at their own job as the center, and realizing that they do that job far better than the manager, figure they’re smarter than the manager. And wonder how the heck it came to be that the manager who knows nothing about their job got to define the goals of their job. And then when the manager makes decisions that make their job more difficult, it only proves without doubt that the manager just doesn’t get it and is an obvious idiot.

Of course, the employees job really isn’t the center of things; there are many employees, each with their own responsibilities. And the managers job is to prioritize and coordinate efforts among employees, usually with differing priorities. Often times decisions have to be made giving deference to one employee’s set of prioritys at the expense of anothers. In fact, that’s one of the managers primary values.

All that said, I’ve been smarter than every boss I’ve ever had, but then who hasn’t been?