The Adams Principle

Dilbert creator expounds on how <i>not</i> to treat your employees.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the September 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

In the world, bosses are heartless incompetents, employees are forever humiliated, and little productivity occurs in the workplace because everyone is too busy writing, reading and implementing pointless human resources department directives. This picture may seem extreme, but it is wildly popular. An estimated 150 million readers in 39 countries turn to the Dilbert comic strip (which appears in more than 1,550 newspapers) daily for consolation, insight and, most important, a good laugh.

Is Dilbert an accurate portrait of today's workplace--or simply an exaggerated cartoon? Scott Adams, the cartoon's creator, is funny, but he's also a keen observer of the business world who insists that much of what he puts in the strip is true. In the corporate world, is incompetent and employees are routinely humiliated. "They're stripped of power, and that's rubbed into their faces daily," says Adams.

But despite his poignant and often dead-on take on the cubicle-ridden '90s workplace, Adams says he's not so much a business revolutionary as "an entrepreneur who has found a way to transfer wealth from other people to himself." Read on to discover what he really thinks about the corporate world, why he runs a booming business with no employees, and how he uses e-mail to build the Dilbert empire.

Entrepreneur: A question any Dilbert reader has to ask is "Are managers really that villainous . . . or simply incompetent?"

Scott Adams: I'd say 10 percent are villainous; 90 percent are incompetent. The Dilbert Principle explains why there are so many incompetent managers. It holds that the least competent people are promoted into management so that you don't waste your good people on trivial issues like writing mission statements and holding meetings. What managers do doesn't add a lot of value.

Entrepreneur: Haven't companies rid themselves of incompetent managers through downsizing?

Adams: Companies have gotten rid of a lot of deadwood. But I cannot verify that they've gotten rid of the worst ones--at least not judging by my personal experience.

Entrepreneur: Is management in better than in big business?

Adams: "Better" is a relative term. But small businesses don't have the luxury to absorb the same level of incompetence that big businesses do. If they try to enjoy that luxury, they cease to be small businesses and quickly become extinct businesses. In a big company, some people's entire jobs are to interfere with other people's jobs. For every person actually doing something, there's a person auditing their performance, monitoring quality control, and making sure they are not ordering pencils when they don't have the
authority. Huge institutions have many people who do nothing but prevent other people from doing their jobs. So it's no surprise that small business is more efficient. I'm not sure that means management is better so much as that there are economies of small scale.

Entrepreneur: Don't small businesses sometimes have management problems that are worse than anything found in big businesses?

Adams: Yes, if it's family-owned. Whenever I hear about a bad small business, it's always family-owned. Wherever there is management that's selected based upon family relations, odds are you won't get the same level of talent that you'd get if you chose managers based upon talent alone.

Entrepreneur: Didn't you work at Pacific Bell as an applications engineer until 1995? Dilbert had already taken off a few years earlier--why did you stay so long?

Adams: They kept giving me paychecks, and I liked that. I got material for the strip every day I worked there, and I liked that, too. And I had a fairly painless job in a laboratory that I liked.

Entrepreneur: Have you ever been a manager?

Adams: For a year or so, I managed a group that varied in size from seven to 15 people. Now you'll ask "Were you a bad manager?" Oh, probably. I used to think that because I could write cleverly about what bad managers do, I must be a person who could recognize those bad things and not do them. But I find that with readers, I can make fun of something they are doing, and they'll say "Wow, I know somebody who does just that!" They're completely unaware that they do it, too. I think there's something about human beings that makes our faults invisible, at least when it comes to management. Therefore, although I cannot say I saw any particular faults I had as a manager, I have to think I was, in fact, doing all of them.

Entrepreneur: Do you have any employees?

Adams: It's just me and the cats.

Entrepreneur: How do you get so much done? You run a busy business--there's the daily comic strip, books, a Web site, products.

Adams: I've become good at time management, which comes down not to what you do but to what you don't do. What I do is skillfully ignore things that don't particularly need to be done. I'm not talking about personal hygiene. But there are basic things every businessperson does that if you didn't do them, nobody would notice. Here's one simple example: Every businessperson has a business card; I don't. I tell people, if you want to find me, my e-mail address is in the strip every day. So I don't worry about ordering business cards, updating them, or refilling my wallet with cards. That's one little example of something everybody assumes you need, and I decided I don't.

Here's another example: I'm having a lot of meetings with high-level executives. Most people would wear a suit to go to them. I don't. I wear sneakers and blue jeans. This has made no difference whatsoever to my profit in Hollywood, and I don't have to do any dry cleaning. There is just a long list of things that simply aren't necessary, and I choose not to do them. Individually, none of them accounts for much time, but cumulatively they save me a lot.

Entrepreneur: Do you outsource functions to independent contractors?

Adams: Absolutely. The other secret is dealing with people on a contract basis rather than having employees. What I've found is that people who have a contract will pretty much do what the contract says. People who are employees will try to bend the expectations. They'll use the fact that the goals aren't clear as an excuse for doing less work. There's a constant battle. The employer is trying to get you to work more for free, and the employee is trying to do less work and get paid more. When you have a contract, you do what the contract says without getting involved in that other stuff.

Entrepreneur: Did you fear when you left Pacific Bell that you were losing your source of material?

Adams: No. I'd say that for the last year I worked at Pac Bell, all my ideas came from e-mail anyway. As an employee, I experienced two or three things a day that might work in a strip, but often they were the same two or three things I'd experienced the day before. But I'd come home and there'd be a couple hundred e-mails that gave me a far larger breadth of material from other people than I'd get from my own experience.

Entrepreneur: You started inserting an e-mail address in the strip back in '93, making you the first syndicated cartoonist to do this. Where did you get the idea?

Adams: I was a business major--I got my MBA from Berkeley. One of the main things you learn in is to get feedback from your customers so they tell you what they like and don't like, and you can change what you're doing. Cartoonists, oddly enough, don't ever come in contact with their customers. And when they do happen to meet customers, the customers tend to be in awe and tell them what they want to hear. When you get successful, everybody lies to you--"Yours is the greatest comic I've ever seen!" That's not useful. But when you give people a semianonymous channel that allows them to write whatever they want, whenever they want, you get useful feedback. E-mail is an ongoing focus group. In my case, it's led me to change the strip toward more of a business and technology orientation.

Entrepreneur: How much e-mail do you get?

Adams: About 350 e-mails a day. I read as much as possible. I'd say most of my ideas for strips come from e-mail. But I try to do topics that match with my own experience. The e-mail serves as a trigger, but I'm drawing on my own experience.

Entrepreneur: Why do you produce a free e-mail newsletter (available via )?

Adams: It's a marketing tool. I like to remind people I exist. I tell them about new products, and it creates a sense of community. We now have about 150,000 subscribers, and I know they get passed around. I put in things I couldn't get away with in the comics, so it adds value. [For example, in his Christmas 1996 newsletter, Adams offers readers party tips, among them: "If you hear someone yell `Empower THIS!!' try to put some distance between you and whatever happens next."]

Entrepreneur: seems to be a buzzword in corporate human resources, but you are quoted as saying "Empowerment is the silliest concept ever." Why do you believe this?

Adams: A lot of empowerment traces back to Nordstrom [department stores], where employees were successfully empowered. But that's one of the few places where it makes sense--in places where employees directly service the customers and the stakes are very low. If you screw up, it's the cost of a pair of shoes. Tell the employee to do what it takes to make this customer happy; when the stakes are low, this makes perfect sense.

What then happened is empowerment spread to companies where it made no sense--to businesses where decisions don't involve a pair of shoes but millions of dollars. But since empowerment had become the management trend, companies spoke all the words--"You're empowered; make your own decisions"--but they couldn't really do it in practice. People still aren't making decisions, and they shouldn't be because decisions involving lots of money are quite rightly held by just a few people.

Entrepreneur: So why is Dilbert unhappy?

Adams: The real issue with employee morale has to do with expectations, not absolute values. Employees are constantly being put in situations where their expectations of what they are getting are rising. Empowerment is a good example--"We're going to give you lots of power!" But then they are told "Check with me before you order that pencil." So employees are in a position where they see all these little contradictions, and those contradictions make them feel powerless. You know that if you had power, you'd fix the contradictions. But you know you can't fix them because you don't have the power. That's where the humiliation factor comes in.

Entrepreneur: You've said "If there's a utility to this strip, it's that it will tell you what people are thinking but won't tell you to your face." Can a manager use Dilbert to manage better?

Adams: It's a general truth that the more you know, the better the decisions you'll make. One thing managers don't know is what employees are thinking or how strongly they hold their opinions. There are obvious reasons why you don't tell your boss he's an idiot. And the Dilbert strip does tell bosses things, especially when an employee clips it out of the paper, pushes it under their door and runs away--which happens a lot.

Entrepreneur: Do you see yourself as a business revolutionary or as a cartoonist?

Adams: I see myself as an entrepreneur who found a way to transfer wealth from other people to himself. All the other things people say about me--"He's changing how people manage"--happen externally to me. That's not my goal. I'm not trying to encourage it. I can't stop it, and if other people are saying it's happening, that's fine. Basically, I'm simply a small-business owner.

Contact Sources

Scott Adams,

To contact Robert McGarvey, visit his Web site at


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