By Jack J. Kelly
Having an incompetent person in a management role, where he is no-good, horrible, dreadful, havoc- causing, painful to his staff, toxic, and just bad at his job, is quite common. This is such a common phenomenon that we have a theory about it, called the Peter Principle. Named after Laurence J. Peter, a Canadian professor who published a satirical book in the 1960s, based upon his theory that “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” and that “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” For a Canadian, who are supposed to be nice and kind – especially compared to us Americans – that is a savage statement and a brutally harsh indictment of corporate culture, eh?
His theory, for anyone who has ever spent two minutes working in a large corporation, is painfully obvious and clears up all the confusion you had about how mangers are in their jobs.
The Peter Principle is so simple: a person does a good job, is likeable enough, and gets a promotion. He performs well enough and gets promoted another step-up the corporate ladder. This keeps happening until the music stops. He gets into a certain job that is over his head. He may not possess the skills, temperament, abilities, or talent to effectively execute the responsibilities attendant with this last promotion. Management has always viewed him as a rising superstar; it’s hard for them to comprehend or believe the star has fizzled out. Also, they don’t want to feel that they could have possibly made a mistake by giving this guy all these promotions over the years. So, it must be the fault of his employees. It couldn’t be his fault, especially since we were the ones who selected him for the job and we are brilliant and awesome. The uncomfortable truth is that their boy wonder has risen to his level of incompetency. His skills were only able to get him to a level under this last promotion.
An employee’s inability to successfully fulfill the requirements of the position he was promoted into may not be the result of gross incompetence. It is more likely that the position simply requires different skills than those the employee actually possesses. For example, an employee who is very good at following rules or company policies may be promoted into the position of creating rules or policies, despite the fact that being a good rule follower does not mean that an individual is well-suited to be a forward thinking, proactive, good rule creator. It’s the exact opposite of the “the cream rises to the top” adage.
Once you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Not everyone possesses the skills, talents, smarts, interpersonal traits to keep climbing the corporate ladder toward becoming a CEO. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are good at some things and bad at other things. It is reasonable that, eventually, people hit a wall with respect to their abilities. This is where they stagnate, recognize their own inadequacies, and quit to find a new job, or management realizes that the she is not competent in this role and fires her.
It’s not just found in management. The Peter Principle applies to most jobs occupied by employees who also rise in the ranks. They may move up a little in the organizational chart, not necessarily in management, but are woefully incompetent to carry out their duties in their new job. You know when you have days where you feel everyone at works sucks at their respective jobs- well, now you know that it’s not just your imagination or hunch- it’s the Peter Principle playing out right in front of you. Now, when people accuse you of complaining, you can look them in the eyes and tell them that, “Yes, in fact, everyone in the office does indeed suck and it’s not just me complaining. It’s the result of everyone getting to move up the corporate ladder- even with the best of intentions- into jobs they just can’t do”.
I’ve seen it in myself and I’m a great example. I started out as a recruiter, got promoted and became a Partner at the Executive Search firm, managed a small team of recruiters, and then started my own company. I loved recruiting and was pretty good at it. Many people would have solely taken on management responsibilities and stopped recruiting. I did both. Evidently, just because I was a good recruiter, didn’t mean or translate well into being a good manager. As a recruiter, let’s face it, you are basically a sales person. You sell yourself to get a job order, sell candidates to go on an interview, and sell both parties to make a placement happen. If you haven’t noticed, sales people tend to be pushy, aggressive, obnoxious, conceited, and possess oversized egos. Even if you don’t have these wonderful qualities, you need to learn them to succeed. Think about it; the whole idea of calling a stranger and basically telling them that their job kind-of sucks and she should take another job- because you say it is- takes an awful lot of hubris and chutzpah. After all, who would listen to a recruiter that says, “Well, your job is really good and you’re paid very well, but I have a job that is sort-of okay. So, maybe if you don’t mind, you could possibly take hours out of your busy days- over the course of six month period of time- and subject yourself to probing questions, an emotional roller coaster ride, and rude dismissive behavior that will most likely not even end up with a new job that is any better than the one you have.”
Usually managers who are salesmen that are pushy, aggressive, moody, ill-tempered workaholics that demand the same from their staff, don’t become beloved managers. That was me. I was good at recruiting, but rising to become a manager – not so good. I hit the Peter Principle wall.
The Peter Principle doesn’t just apply to the business world. There are an awful lot of people out there who are walking proof of the Peter Principle. The guy who was a good boyfriend, but a horrendous husband and father. The high school jock who was the winning quarterback, but got cut from the team in his college freshman year. Look around you, there are so many examples of people that are incompetent at life itself.
A possible solution to the problem, posed by the Peter Principle, is for companies to recognize the situation and provide skills training for employees receiving a promotion. Senior management should watch over the person to ensure that they are not in over their head and offer continual advice and guidance. Employees should be consulted to determine if the manager is performing well and motivating their staff. Managers- in divisions that the person works with- should also be consulted. With this 360 degree review, it could help improve the person or find out if she is not working out and cut the losses. It could be handled humanely by moving the person into a more suitable role. I know what you are thinking: “This is Ivory Tower Theory, Jack. But in reality, what manager will willingingly take a demotion? They will threaten to sue for some sort of discrimination, management will acquiesce, and the person will remain.” You readers are smart! That’s probably what will happen. However, don’t worry because they will most likely be promoted again and leave you the hell alone.
I don’t think I solved any issues in this piece; however, you can now feel better about yourself knowing that your manager really is an incompetent a$$.