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Beating The Peter Principle

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to
rise to his level of incompetence.” — Laurence J. Peter

This maxim is known as the Peter Principle and is thought to
account for the fact that there are incompetent people at all organizational
levels, although not necessarily at a given level in a specific organization.
Peter’s notion is that people are promoted based on their competence at a lower
level. The pool of people who are eligible for promotion to any level in an
organization is limited to individuals who have demonstrated competence at a
lower level. If you are the employee, you will keep getting promoted until you
eventually get a position for which you aren’t competent. That’s as far “up” as
you will go; and since everyone knows that is how it works, you will stay there
until you quit or retire. Since Peter is right, at least to some extent, how
can this organizational tendency be best managed?

First, recognize that the knowledge and skills
for success in a lower position aren’t the same as those required for a higher
position. Usually, job descriptions are mostly a list of duties and
responsibilities. The position description for the next higher level simply
says that the employee is expected to “supervise” or “manage” employees who
perform the duties associated with the lower position. If you are a brick
layer, promotion to foreman means that you supervise/manage brick layers. You
get the idea.

As a brick layer, the position requirements primarily focused on
being able to correctly lay X number of bricks under Y circumstances. As a
foreman, the position requirements include knowing a lot about laying bricks;
but actually being an expert brick layer isn’t necessarily required. You need
to be able to supervise/manage brick layers. The point is that the major
competencies needed to be a successful foreman vary a lot from those required
to be a successful brick layer. Being a foreman requires a quite different
knowledge/skill set. Instead of promoting a brick layer to foreman, it would
make as much sense to recruit a competent, non-brick laying foreman and have
him supervise/manage the brick layers. The question is whether it is better to
have a competent brick layer who knows very little about supervision and
management or a competent foreman who knows very little about brick laying.

Since the obvious need is for someone who knows a lot about
brick laying and a lot about supervising/managing brick layers, it sure isn’t
difficult to see what is needed. If someone wants to be a brick layer, he will
need to serve an apprenticeship under a qualified brick layer. To be a foreman,
you will need to be a qualified brick layer and then successfully complete an
apprenticeship designed especially for foreman. Unfortunately, the higher up
one goes in an organization, the less likely one is to find an apprenticeship
program at that level. At the highest levels, apprenticeship training should be
an integral part of an organization’s succession planning but it typically
isn’t, if there is any succession planning at all.

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