I read a fascinating (but lengthy) piece not long ago by Bob Sutton (a management professor at Stanford University) on The Peter Principle. In case you've forgotten it, The Peter Principle is an idea about professional competence and the nature of hierarchies. It is also the name of a book by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull.
I asked a couple of people recently if they were familiar with the Peter Principle, and if they could tell me what it meant. The standard answer was something like, "Ahmmm, yeah. That's the one about how if you do a good job they promote you, and then that keeps happening until finally you're in a job where you're incompetent." That answer is incomplete, so I'd go on and ask, "And then what?" And invariably they'd say, "I don't know… You get fired, I guess. Isn't that what happens to incompetent people..?"
Of course, incompetent people don't always get fired. Dr. Peter would go further and say that they don't usually get fired – at least not if they work for large organizations with a hierarchical management structure.
When The Peter Principle was first published in 1968 it was as much humor as economic theory. There hasn't been much research done on it. And competency (or at least incompetence) is a hard thing to quantify.
It's hard to deny that there are incompetent people who, for some reason, get to keep their jobs. On the other hand, it seems cynical to believe that everyone will eventually be promoted into a set of responsibilities they can't fulfil – and that that's where they'll retire. But that's the theory.
Can we avoid the Peter Principle? Every manager has hired somebody that turned out to be a dude despite their glowing recommendations and excellent resume. And most managers have promoted a loyal employee with 20 years of experience to a new job in the company where they didn't do that well.
I did some looking and found a handful of tips on how to avoid the Peter Principle, both in your hiring practices and your personal life. You can browse through them below…
- How to Avoid the Peter Principle, by Robert F. Gately
- Five steps to avoid the 'Peter Principle' in your own career, by Ruby Bayan
- Avoiding the Peter Principle: Promotion without pain, by David Frank
- Your Company Tries to Avoid the "Peter Principle", But Have They Unwittingly Embraced the "Dilbert Principle" Instead?
- Over Your Head, by Tom Foster
- Talking Shop: What the management-level job requires in skills, by Tech Republic
- Avoiding Promoting People to a Level of Incompetence, from Mind Tools
I'll close with this thought. If you can't avoid the Peter Principle, at least avoid The Dilbert Principle. Scott Adams, (MBA from UC Berkeley) created the Dilbert comic strip and later articulated what he called The Dilbert Principle in a 1995 Wall Street Journal article. The idea is simple but paranoid: Corporations tend to promote the least competent employees to management positions to try to limit the operational damage they can inflict on their companies. I think it has become a common, though bass ackwards approach to management…