“In a hierarchy, everyone tends to rise to the level of their incompetence.”

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Those who know me, will be aware of my interest in reading about management and leadership. Theory or course must be backed up by practice. Today though, my post is about a humorous theory that could well be a ‘real world’ issue.

In his first book “The Peter Principle, Why Things Always Go Wrong” (1969) Laurence J. Peter revealed his discovery of a rather amusing principle. The Peter Principle is the premise is that in management hierarchies, people, through their careers, continue to advance until they have been promoted one layer above their level of capability. They are promoted to their level of incompetence, where they stay until they retire. The follow up in 1972 offers a range of prescriptions to the principle.

Scott Adams uses the Dilbert cartoon to offer a parallel principle –  “leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow”. Companies, according to Dogbert,  tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management, in order to limit the amount of damage they can do.

Of course, many many managers offer real value and enhance the work of their teams. I’ve met many skilled and useful leaders – however, whether you’re a teenage Saturday shelf stacker or a well established CEO, you’ve met someone who demonstrates the description of the Peter Principle and at times it seems all encompassing. Both principles share a common perspective, they view that talent like hot air; we rise, start to cool down and sink back. Even the most brilliant, in this scenario, will grow and rise until we are called upon to do something that we are not good at. The outcome then is that we sink or stick. Even though both were delivered with a smile, a look at the Unions in Ireland or across the public and banking sectors, one must wonder whether there has been a fair point made.

If there is some weight to the joke – should industry really be laughing?

When things reach break point, companies obviously look to streamline – in an extremely competitive global economy large firms  lose weight to survive. Markets are tight, established players are finding competition tough and new approaches are mixing things up. Unlike the past, this ‘weight loss’ can happen at any time.

At a time when innovation is paramount, many executives may be at their “Peter Principle” summit, unwilling to risk change and uncertainty. If the principle are even partially correct – if all the fluff go up – how can leadership keep organisations innovative? If Anglo and the collapse of the Irish economy showed us anything, it teaches us that executives are frequently too busy, too far removed from customers and consumers and too preoccupied with what Shareholders/Directors think.

It is vital that targeted skills, appropriate education and staff development ensure that a fresh talent pool without appointment ceilings introduce new workers into the upper levels before they begin to cool. Many individuals,  given time, encouragement and with the right incentives can become innovative leaders.

Much of the Peter book is spent listing the many elaborate and often amusing coping strategies that incompetent workers adopt in order to distract from or cover up the fact that they no longer can do what they are called upon to do in their organization. Its like something from “Office space”. For leaders of my generation, with a world changing faster all the time, it will be a challenge to keep moving quickly enough to stay on the economic treadmill. In my own planning, I’m keen to constantly develop a career plan, training path that will always see  me grow. This principle is a must as I maintain and sculpt my way through what is likely to be a changeable career. Frequent frank personal status reviews will be necessary to stay ‘current’ in the economic landscape as I take each temporary residence in it.

 

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