Have you ever wondered how people with apparently little talent get promoted to a point where their “real” job seems to be to screw things up for everyone beneath them on the organization chart?
In my years in sales and general management I’ve observed this phenomenon around the country many times, including right here in Orlando. While it’s not limited to sales management, it seems to be more common in that arena. In fact, it’s so common, there’s actually a name for it: The Peter Principle.
The idea that high-level incompetence is inevitable was formulated in the 1969 best-selling book The Peter Principle: Why things always go wrong. Its authors, psychologist Laurence Peter and playwright Raymond Hull, started from the observation that while jobs generally get more difficult the higher up any ladder you climb, most people only come equipped with a more or less fixed level of talent that corresponds to their intelligence, knowledge and energy. At some point, then, they will be promoted into a job they can’t quite handle. They will, as Peter and Hull put it, “reach the level of their own incompetence”. And there they will stay, fouling up operations until they either retire or some egregiously inept act gets them fired.
The problem is what they get up to in the meantime. They end up distracting us from their crummy work with giant desks. They replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, and cheat to create the illusion of progress. Meanwhile, the actual work gets done by those who have not yet scaled the summit of their own incompetence. That would be you and me, then.
The employee’s incompetence is not necessarily exposed as a result of the higher-ranking position being more difficult – simply, that job is different from the job in which the employee previously excelled, and thus requires different work skills, which the employee may not possess. For example, a factory worker’s excellence in his job can earn him promotion to manager, at which point the skills that earned him his promotion no longer apply to his job. Or a sales administrator excellent in tracking sales, who gets promoted to a sales management role which requires a lot of people skills that the individual simply does not possess, or worse, does not believe is necessary. Thus, the real work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.
The “Peter principle” undoubtedly appeals to the cynic in all of us. It is also quite possibly true, if subsequent academic studies are to be believed. The longer a person stays at a particular level in an organization, the more most measures of their performance fall – including subjective evaluations and the frequency and size of pay rises and bonuses. It is a finding entirely consistent with the idea that people eventually become bogged down by their own incompetence.
But what happens if the conventional idea is false and employees’ ability to perform at higher levels has no link to their competence at lower levels? The result is profoundly different, as you might expect. Promoting the best-performing employees merely takes people out of positions where they are doing well and pushes them upwards until they arrive at a position for which they lack the requisite skills. Their promotion history then comes to an end: the Peter principle wins out.
The cure for this problem? We should return to what Dr. Peter wanted: rewarding ordinary competence and being wary of feats that come too easily. Perhaps the late Ray Kroc is the right role model here. One of his first steps in building the McDonald’s empire was to run his own outlet—he cooked, cleaned bathrooms, picked up the trash. The focus on doing ordinary things well was, he believed, key to McDonald’s success. Imagine a V.P. Sales actually making sales, traveling with sales reps, coaching them to success, attending trade shows and meeting with customers. Makes sense to you and me, but not to the self absorbed manager.
Simple competence was central, too, for former U.S. Marine Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, who led a platoon in bloody street battles in Iraq. As Campbell’s account, Joker One, tells us, he earned his men’s respect and protected them through simple acts: training them to get in and out of a Humvee quickly, reminding them to eat, and arguing with superiors when those under his command were unnecessarily put in harm’s way.
Finally, consider how Captain Chesley Sullenberger III explained his astounding emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River last year. “I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do,” he said. As Dr. Peter might have observed, there were no pretenders, blowhards, or shared delusions that day, just the deftly coordinated actions of people who had not reached their level of incompetence.