Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

On Tuesdays I often write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from C. with 101 votes] is Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

I’m a diligent individual, but find it frustrating to continually clean up after the mess “idiots” create – but yet the “idiots” cannot be stopped. I have clout in my organization, yet individuals below me are supported by peers, while I’m ignored.

Your question is an interesting one, but not just for workplaces. As an experiment, lets turn your question around. Why Do Smart People Get Ahead?

I’m not sure they always do. The greatest single factor for how far ahead we get in life is simple: where and when we are born. If you were born in ancient Rome it was 50/50 you’d live past 10 years old no matter how smart you were. Then again, if your Dad was Louis XIV, King Of France in 1644, and you were the first son, you’d be far ahead before you said a single word. There were thousands of other smarter kids born that same day in France, but none were given the same advantages. Monarchy seems pretty limiting to us now, but even today who our parents were defined hundreds of advantages or disadvantages we didn’t pick, but often take credit for. Of course there are no guarantees: many children of the rich and famous often have a terrible time living up to the burdens of those legacies. But my point is there are many factors that define who succeeds in the universe, some we control but many we don’t. Some seems fair to us and some unfair.

Specific to the question of idiots, smarter people get ahead only when they are able to successfully apply their abilities to the situations and challenges they face. Some challenges in life depend more on social skills, passion, empathy, dedication and ambition than smarts. More so, words like smart, dumb, intelligent and idiot are used very loosely. Howard Gardner defined at least nine types of intelligence, including spatial and inter-personal smarts. Depending on what we’re talking about (life? work? sports?) different kinds of intelligence yield different advantages. Some titans of industry have terrible social lives. Many of our most prolific artists struggle with depression. Life is more complex than the simple scorecard we often use to judge others, and ourselves, with. “Getting ahead” seems a lousy measurement, since it demands the question: ahead of whom?

There are five different ideas hidden inside your question, as it relates to the working world:

  • Meritocracy depends on who defines merit. An idiot could easily get ahead in an organization that decided idiots are awesome. A crazy (or idiotic) CEO could say “we will give a 20% raise and rank promotion to the dumbest people we have.” With an incentive to be stupid, what would merit mean? We tend to think about meritocracy in simple, selfish terms, but it’s highly subjective and local to your culture. Some cultures value politeness, others directness. Banks reward consistency, but startups reward ambition. If you find yourself in a place where your definition of merit, or morality, doesn’t match those around you there are only 4 choices: influence their definition, change yours, accept your fate or move on.
  • When something goes wrong, look up. If ever you wonder why a team or group is a mess, look directly at their collective boss (or parent). It’s their job to make it not that way. If dysfunction and incompetence are common, hold those in charge responsible. Do you have a coworker who is truly incompetent? If yes, then ask: who has the power to fire, or reassign them, but hasn’t yet? (And who hired them in the first place?). Your problem might simply be your boss is terrible at her job (or her superiors are terrible, which constrains her abilities). A primary responsibility for a boss is to create a functional workplace where competence is rewarded. If the boss is failing to do that, not much else matters. They will spoil most attempts to right the ship, since they prefer it sinking (Perhaps because they are insecure and need to always feel smart, which is best achieved by having fools around them in an endless series of crises only the boss can resolve).
  • Intelligence is only one valuable attribute. An ambitious person with less talent can sometimes beat a lazy person with more talent. In workplaces, above a minimum level of intelligence, it’s often skills of listening, communicating, earning trust and being reliable that define a person’s reputation. Some abilities, like creativity, persuasiveness  and work ethic, aren’t directly tied to intelligence. Someone of average intelligence but who excels at these other skills, and knows their own limitations, can succeed faster than a smarter person who is very difficult to work with or to trust. We’re also influenced by our biases: we like some people and don’t like others for superficial reasons. It’s hard for that bias not to slip into the decisions we make, or who we are willing to support (or not). And of course: if you’re smart enough to know your coworkers are idiots, but not smart enough to work around them or find a new job, how smart are you?
  • You might be confusing idiocy with disagreement. It’s possible the idiots see you as an idiot too (judgement reciprocity). We’re wired to divide the world into us vs. them distinctions, which often blinds us to the nuances we need to see to begin to understand a different point of view. To say They Don’t Get It might reflect as much about your own limitations as theirs. How do they see the world? How do they see their role or their contributions? Maybe they’re just as frustrated as you are, and recognizing you share this perspective might lead to other kinds of progress.
  • Cumulative Advantage. Any initial advantage, from luck, skill or inheritance, can tilt future odds of getting ahead into a person’s favor. Many people who don’t seem, in the present, to deserve the status they have, may be benefiting from past earned, or unearned, advantage.
  • People rise to their level of incompetence (The Peter Principle). The reasons people are promoted often have more to do with the work they’ve done than their ability to play the role they’re promoted into. An exceptional soldier might be a terrible manager or leader of other soldiers. It’s a common trap in organizations that the only way to earn more money is to take on a management role. This motivates people who have no real interest in leadership or management to take those positions. Once there, their mediocrity prevents them from further promotion, but their pride prevents them from seeking “demotion” to a role they are better suited for.

Also see:


18 Responses to “Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?”

  1. Scott Berkun

    I had notes for it, but couldn’t work in the insider politics that lead to incompetent people in powerful positions. They include:

    – Nepotism
    – Blackmail
    – People who promised a favor to get into power, and honor it by putting someone unworthy into power
    – Influence maintenance – a loyal, but less qualified, person supports the power structure more than an independent, but more qualified, candidate.

    There are others. I bet someone wrote a book than inventories them. if you know of a reference please leave a comment. Thanks.

  2. Lady Grantham

    This is very helpful. I have to stay in this situation, though. I just need survival skills. People skills around here are like casting pearls before swine. I found your website by typing in ” How to Keep Your Big Mouth Shut in a Meeting.” I put that article up on my laptop and sit where no one can see it during meetings. The clique agrees with whoever gives the first brainless idea and then always goes on to say. “Let me play the Devil’s advocate…” then proceeds to say the same thing everyone in the clique agreed to before. It would be humorous on Bad Bosses, but in real life it is miserable. I don’t know whether to stand up to the bully in this vacuum of leadership or keep my big mouth shut and be thought a fool and discredited.

  3. Sean Crawford

    For the above commenter, what helps for me is checking my intention before I speak. In a frustrating situation like yours, I would be silent for a long time as I strove to speak without a desire to reprimand, punish, vent anger, teach or assert my ego in being right. It would be a long time before I could say a simple sentence, for the record, in order to simply, without ego or emotion, plant a seed or state a truth.

    I’ve never remembered to pray for a foolish group, but if I did then I’m sure that would help me to stay sane.

    Scott, as we say in Canada, “tre amusante.” You covered the topic so well that none of your 101 voters would comment.

  4. Matthew Magain

    Great response Scott, as much as it is a case study in problem solving (how to consider all angles, research them, and articulate a summary) as the content itself. Love your work. 👍🏻

  5. Moshe Chayon

    In my opinion most people are not idiots their just lazy. It’s not that they can’t figure something out it’s more like they won’t take the time to do it. And yes, this can be extremely annoying and demoralizing.

    1. Ron Michaels

      Moshe might like to check the use of the word, “their” instead of the word, “they’re.” Check your dictionary before writing anything in business.

      1. Sean

        Moshe seems to be too lazy to use the spell check ;-) lmao

  6. jamesearl

    i like my definition of an idiot a person group or thing that repeatedly kicks a dog and expects him not to bite

  7. Ron Michaels

    If you delay your comment you’re prudent and wise. If you delay too long, you’re not. Timing is important. If you move too early you may be classified as “arrogant.” Move too late and you could be seen as someone who waits to hear what everyone else says and then make a decision that agrees with the majority. Leo Burnett, founder and Chairman of the Leo Burnett Company (Advertising) in Chicago would sit in a meeting with a dozen of his executives and not say a word for an hour. The ashes on his cigarette would challenge him to move so they could tumble down the front of his suit jacket. His eyes were open but he didn’t move. After listening to everybody else give an opinion (often heated) he would take the cigarette out of his mouth, make his analysis and his recommendations (never a dictate) and that was the meeting. Everybody sitting at the big conference table or around the room against the walls realized that his clarity was superb and the solution which seemed to evade everyone else was perfect. You can take that chance or you can be a “first mover” and get a reputation for being incisive, creative and professional — when you’re right. If you are good, the only way to get recognition is to be right more often than being wrong. The only way to get that talent is through trial and error. God made man the perfect servomechanism. When you see the target and pull the trigger, veering off course a number of times gives you the innate talent to correct your path in transit. That’s how you get to be a good and talented and productive professional. You will give confidence to those who now will rely on you and your perception. Try it. Pull the trigger. Watch what happens when you engage your own internal gyroscope.

  8. Peter Evans

    Not disparaging…but this article is extremely wordy, inefficient and consequently ineffective. It is full of unsubstantiated generalizations, fluff and nonsense. Truly I would like to see an article like this written by someone with high-intelligence or at least a college degree as a counterpoint to what is here. The points covered in this topic could easily written with 250 words or less.

  9. GetzelR

    One overlooked point in a thorough and valuable response: Meritocracy is artificial and incomplete. In reality it accounts for far less than we tell ourselves it does.

  10. Susan

    I really appreciate this post and also some of the comments (especially the one by Ron Michaels). I came here looking for some perspective on how to handle a resentful (threatened) colleague, and I found it.

  11. Sean Crawford

    Susan, I like Ron’s comments too. The way the man with the cigarette had a functioning brain is that he could listen well, without being muffled by an agenda, or a threatened ego, or emotions.

    Too often people project emotions onto someone’s simple emotionless statement, and then perceive a feeling of being attacked. It’s just a subtle ego thing. Also he could listen without the anxiety of wondering if he was inadequate to the task. Sometimes emotions call forth emotions due to a group’s unstated background anxiety.

    For me, my integrity of listening without attachment is like a clarity/I.Q. boost. At some level people know and appreciate what I am doing, even if they can’t put it in words.

  12. Feng

    It would be because “idiots” are more confident. Stupidity and ignorance has been correlated with confidence.




Leave a Reply

* Required