The fact that employees rise to their level of incompetence seemed like a joke--until we realized how true it is.
It’s time to bring back the Peter Principle. Not the BBC TV series, but the idea that meritocracies work to promote people beyond the level of their actual abilities. This time around, the Peter Principle should serve as a warning to everyone under 30 who isn’t grateful for the jobs they have and who want more - often, too much more, too soon. If there ever were a time to be really careful about what you wish for, it would be right now.
The simplest phrasing of the Peter Principle is that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” It was initially a humorous formulation, until people started to see how accurate it was.
And, if you’re young and not careful, it’s a quick way to lose your job. I recently had to sit through a very painful and embarrassing meeting where a perfectly decent and talented young man unsuccessfully asked for his old job back. But his old job had been filled. He had only left it because he had vocally and aggressively sought a new job that he really wasn’t right for.
Young people today seem to understand only half of the phrase “up or out.” I encourage everyone to aspire to greater things and to take their best shot--when they are prepared, when they understand what they’re asking for, and when they’re ready to live with the consequences of things not working out. Before you jump for that new job, try to answer these questions honestly.
Do you understand what the whole new job entails?
If you just focus on the perks and the rewards of a job, you often miss the whole package, and especially the baggage that comes with the benefits.
Especially in sales, there’s often a whole lot of ugly lifting that goes with getting the job done. I had a client once who won some hugely profitable government contracts. It seemed like a piece of cake. Then I spent a week on the road with him, going from one Army base to another entertaining procurement people in cheap, smoky bars for hours on end and dealing with a stream of insufferables. I decided that life was way too short for that and you couldn’t pay me enough to put up with it. My client knew it too, but it was a choice he had made and it came with the job.
Can you do the job?
Hope and wishful thinking aren’t good tools for advancement. This is where honest assessment (and maybe even asking some other people whose judgment you respect) comes into play. The very last thing you want to do is to test the depth of the pool with both feet. It’s a great way to end up all wet, even assuming that you don’t drown.
Do you really want the job?
The grass is almost always greener. Travel and time out of the office sound great until you miss the first few family occasions, a few school recitals, and spend a few too many nights in the Red Roof Inn. Other jobs are so stressful and so 24/7 that the sacrifices they entail simply aren’t worth it. There’s always more work, but you’ve only got one family.
Here’s the hard part. Real happiness doesn’t come from doing easy work or phoning it in. It comes from doing hard work really well. If you don’t put the effort into something, you never really know and appreciate what it’s worth. Your work and how you feel about it has a lot to do with your sense of self. If you’d rather be doing anything but your work, find something else to do.
Is it a real job that matters?
You don’t want to end up with a make-work job that your boss created just to stop you from bugging him or her. It’s great to throw yourself into things and work hard at something, but you want to work hard at something that’s worth doing.
Look at each job through two distinct lenses: Does it have meaning, and does it have value? If no one values or cares about the results of your efforts, it may be meaningful to you, but if it doesn’t hold value to the business and your bosses, it won’t be around for long. In the book and newspaper business, and a world of user-generated crap, I think that real editors must ask themselves these kinds of questions every day. I bet they don’t like the answers.
Who are you working with and for?
Some colleagues can turn even the best job into a miserable experience. I’d rather work with tree stumps than some of the people I’ve had to deal with over the years. While you’re at it, try not to work for someone who has more problems than you do.
Is management committed?
You need to make sure, before you sign up, that management and the company will provide what you need to succeed: funding and other resources; authority to get things done; enough time and runway; and, most importantly, some agreed-upon metrics for measuring success.
Are you getting just enough rope to hang yourself?
It’s a lot harder to have to flat out fire someone (especially someone you’d like to keep, but can’t afford) than it is to let them work themselves out of a “new” job that just doesn’t end up working out. It happens more than you’d imagine.
The bottom line: Do your homework before you open your mouth and ask for that new position. It will save you a lot of heartache and maybe your current job as well. Sometimes not getting what you think you desperately want is the best break of all.
HOWARD A. TULLMAN is the CEO of 1871 – Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman @tullman