The Peter principle

Simply stated: people rise to the level of their incompetence; sometimes (incorrectly) given as the higher the status/rank, the lower the intelligence.  Mention it to almost anyone in an organisation and they’ll smile: often said in jest, it contains elements of truth far too often.

It has been tradition, certainly in many developed nations, for good performance to be rewarded by promotion – and promotion brings both higher status and higher wages.  The trouble is that such promotions are often made on the basis of history rather than ability to do the new job.  Let me explain with an example (purely hypothetical):

  • Joe has risen through the engineering office from trainee draughtsman to being the best designer on the payroll; he really knows his way round the suite of design tools and the company’s products.  He’s been key to getting design details right and the company wants to reward him (and stop him looking elsewhere for more money).
  • The Engineering Manager’s position has fallen vacant and the company needs to fill it – either by recruiting from outside or by filling it through an internal promotion.  Aha!  An opportunity to reward Joe.
  • Joe now has the task of running the department; he has to learn man-management skills – sit on the other side of the desk at annual appraisals, address discipline, etc; he now has to attend management meetings, manage the department budget, prepare reports.
  • Joe has no time for design.  His famous attention to detail that ensured success is no longer available.
  • Joe was never trained to be a manager – he has to learn a totally new role.

The company has lost it’s best designer and gained an untrained manager.  If he’s good, he’ll do well enough to keep his job and, in a few years, get promoted further up the ladder to another new role.  He might be smart enough to go yet further but he’ll probably get to the point where he’s at the limit of his ability.  He’s no longer happy in his work but it’s just not done to step down the ladder; nor would it be easy to move to another company, especially as he’s not really shining in his current position.  He’s certainly not doing well enough to warrant another promotion (though it’s quite possible the next rung would see him in a role at which he could excel) so he stays in that position – the one for which he’s not really competent.

Hypothetical but not unrealistic.  Not a criticism of Joe (or anyone Joe may remind you of), either.  What else could have been done?

Changes of attitude are needed:

1. Get out of the rut that says managers necessarily have higher status (and money) than the people they manage and find ways to reward people to continue doing what they do best.  Some companies recognise this and have career paths that allow people to progress along doing what they do well, receiving salaries and status alongside those in the management ladder.  In many cases, people will end up being paid more than their manager (and, occasionally, having higher corporate status).

2. Management is a role that needs particular skills and competence – it’s not just a step up the corporate ladder, a reward for doing well.  It needs to be recognised as a profession for which people need to be trained and become competent.

3. Training and development plans need to focus ahead, not behind.  Train people to improve the skills needed for their current job, addressing shortfalls identified through past efforts, but then look to train for the future.

Good succession planning needs key staff to identify the best person to succeed them; it then needs those people to be trained and prepared to succeed.  An oversimplification that, perhaps, I’ll expand later.

(Posted as a blog 9th June 2012)

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