Every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence – Laurence J Peter. (BBC)
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Have you ever wondered why the world is full of so many people who are incredibly incompetent at the very thing are paid to do? If so, a crotchety educationalist called Laurence J. Peter may have the answer.
Working as a teacher in Canada in the 1940s, Peter had been puzzled by the inept behaviour of his equals and superiors. He had applied to join a new school district, for instance, only to have all his forms and documents returned.
There was nothing wrong with the application – rather, the Department of Education told him that they could not accept the package since it had not been registered at the Post Office for safe delivery, despite the fact that it had, of course, already arrived safely. How could someone stupid enough to create that rule have found a place in the Department of Education?
Peter soon saw such foolish behaviour all around him – in politics, journalism, the military and the law. “Occupational incompetence is everywhere,” he later wrote in a best-selling book on the subject.
Every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence – Laurence J Peter
That book, published in 1969, attempted to explain why that might be. In Peter’s view, most people were promoted based on their current performance, with no real consideration of their capacity to take on greater responsibility. The result is that we may be less good at our current job than the one before. As we climb one, two or three rungs up the ladder, our performance may be so bad that we no longer warrant a further promotion.
By this point we’ve reached our limits and fail to improve any more, and so we end-up irritating our colleagues and clients with our inability to do the job.
Eventually, “every employee tends to rise to his [or her] level of incompetence”, he wrote – a law he termed the ‘Peter Principle’.
The work was largely satirical – an academic’s attempt to ‘stick it to the Man’. It’s only recently that organisational scientists and psychologists have tested whether it’s actually true.
High levels of incompetence
Perhaps spurned on by the 2008 financial crisis – and the flawed decision making behind it – much work on the Peter Principle has been conducted within the last decade.
Of this handful of studies, the strongest evidence for the theory comes from a recent study of 131 companies (operating in IT, manufacturing and professional services) that all used the same performance management software. This allowed the researchers to mine the (anonymised) date of nearly 39 000 sales workers, 1 553 of whom were promoted to management roles over the six-year study period.
As you might expect, the team found that the best salesmen or women were the ones who tended to be promoted. To assess their aptitude for the new managerial position, the researchers then examined the effect of this move on their team members.
“The managers are in charge of training and allocating and directing their sales employees,” says Kelly Shue at the Yale School of Management. “So, to figure out if someone is a good manager, we basically looked at the extent to which they improve or change the performance of their subordinates.”
If the previously high-performing candidates really were competent at the new job, you would hope there would be a rise in the average performance of the team as a whole.
Managers who used to be very high-performing sales workers tended not to bring a significant boost to their colleagues
Unfortunately, that’s not what Shue saw. Managers who used to be very high-performing sales workers tended not to bring a significant boost to their colleagues, while the lower performers were often much better at raising the average sales within their team.
Shue was not entirely surprised by the result. “We looked at sales partly because, anecdotally, there's a lot of complaints about the Peter Principle being a problem in that setting,” she says. Indeed, one inspiration was the US version of The Office, in which the protagonist Michael Scott – who used to be a great salesperson – became an absolutely terrible manager. (BBC)