Ever heard of the Peter Principle? It basically states that people within an organization tend to get promoted to their level of incompetence. The theory was first brought to our collective attention by Laurence J. Peter in his book The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, published in 1969. Peter’s theory is based on his observation that people eventually end up in the wrong job for the right reason, and create havoc in the workplace.
Here’s how the Peter Principle works. New employees typically start in lower- or entry-level positions, and when they prove to be competent in those positions, they get promoted to a higher position within the company. This climbing up the hierarchical ladder can go on indefinitely until the employee reaches a position where he is no longer competent. Even if the employee figures out that he would be happier and more productive at a lower rung on the ladder, the stigma of a perceived failure (and the possible loss of earnings) keeps that employee from asking for a demotion. The result is that most of the higher levels of a hierarchical structure will be filled by incompetent people who got there because they were good at doing a job completely different from the one they are trying to do now. This is why things go wrong.
If the Peter Principle isn’t familiar to you by name, the concept probably hits home. You’ve probably already stood up in your cubicle and attempted to count the examples of the Peter Principle in your own office. This phenomenon is a familiar one in IT, where technology-savvy employees are often promoted to management or project leadership roles.
It happened to me early in my career. I was happily coding along in RPG on the AS/400 when the small company I worked for decided to start a technical support department. We were growing and starting to field quite a few software support calls, but had no idea who to assign the work to, how the track the calls, or how to measure our productivity. The company decided to promote me to supervisor of the new department because I had the most technical experience among the entry-level programmers and recently hired employees. Not because of management experience, project leadership experience, or a psychology degree. I had the most technical experience. I was soon knee-deep in a pile of dung, represented by tasks that I had no knowledge of or desire to do. When I was alone at the office late at night, trying to catch up on performance reviews or some other mundane management job that I could no longer ignore, I swore I could see Laurence Peter snapping a photo of me for the next edition of his book. I had to eventually quit just to get out of the situation.
There is a bright side to the story, though. In fact, there are two of them. For one, it didn’t take me long to rise to my level of incompetence. Second, now that I knew my level of incompetence, I could make career decisions to stay below that line. That’s when I became a consultant.
Well, that was over 10 years ago, and although I did become a consultant about four years later, when I was again tempted with a promotion into management, I have since taken on project leadership and management roles and have even had some success in them. That’s because I have learned some of the skills necessary to succeed in those roles. Had I not been able to jump to the consulting world, I may have been doomed very early in my career and accepted the fact that the Peter Principle had boxed me in. Either that or I would have had to work very hard to become competent in those jobs where I was not competent. And that brings me to another theory, one that is less related to organizations and more to evolution, but nonetheless warrants a look. That is the Red Queen Principle.
The Red Queen Principle was proposed by evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen in 1973 and was based on a quote in Lewis Carroll‘s Through the Looking Glass, in which the Red Queen tells Alice that “in this place, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” From that quote, van Valen, a professor at the University of Chicago, came up with his Red Queen Principle: “For an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with.”
In his article The Red Queen Principle, professor Francis Heylighen of the Free University of Brussels talks about how an improvement in one species will lead to a competitive advantage, in one form or another, and allow that species to capture a larger share of the resources. This will, in turn, lead to a smaller share of the resources for another species, and thus a fitness decrease. The only way the other species involved in the competition can survive is by learning how to increase its fitness, so that it can regain its share of the resources. As an example, Heylighen points out that the rabbit, in evolving to run faster, has gained a competitive defensive advantage over its predator the fox. In turn, the fox must compensate for its decreased fitness by increasing its offense, which also happens to be learning how to run faster, to once again obtain a competitive advantage.
It sounds like survival of the fittest to me. It also sounds like what goes on today in corporate America. I have colleagues who were once technical giants — no programming challenge was too difficult, no deadline too close — who not only handled promotion into management, they excelled at it. After what I went through, I was sure Peter would show up with his camera, but not in their cases. Most of them have gone on to become successful managers, directors, or chief information officers (although at least one of them has jumped back into consulting), and couldn’t even imagine going back into a technical role. What happened to them? Are they so skilled that they have not yet found their level of incompetence? Or could it be that they were running in order to keep in the same place. Maybe the reason these guys went back to management school or concentrated on their project management skills was the realization that, in order to compete, they must improve their skills. Even in my own case, I have learned enough about myself to know when I need to increase my fitness to keep pace with my competitors. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. I know what I like to do and I know what I will try to pass on to someone else.
But maybe Peter Principle has nothing to do with it. Maybe there are no real problems with corporate America. When you look up the corporate ladder maybe you don’t see a bunch of incompetent buffoons running around carrying spreadsheets, PDAs, and paper coffee cups from Starbucks, mumbling phrases like, “We have to do due diligence” and “What are the pain points?” Maybe, instead, if you refocus and look up that ladder again, you will see a highly adaptive, highly skilled group of people who continue to evolve because of the ever-increasing strength of those around them. Maybe it’s a group that, without constant challenge and growth, would slowly waste away and be eaten by the competition. A group who–hey, who’s that next to you, looking up your ladder? Oh, it’s just Laurence J. Peter, and, look, he brought his camera.
by Kevin Vandever
THE FOUR HUNDRED, Volume 11, Number 27. (Source)