The Peter Principle Lives On
Forty years ago, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull invented business satire with the publication of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. The principle posits that employees are rewarded for competence by being shoved up hierarchies until they reach a position that overwhelms their skills. At that point, they stick. Consequently, "In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties," the authors wrote. Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan discussed the idea's enduring relevance with Stanford management professor Robert Sutton, who wrote an introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition. (Peter and Hull died in 1990 and 1985, respectively.)
So, the 40th anniversary of The Peter Principle. Great timing or what?
I think the world is ready for the reappearance of a book on incompetence. We can't give incompetence all the credit for what's gone wrong with the economy. But it's clear that the CEOs at financial firms had no idea what they were leading. Do you think they really understood all those complex instruments? The Peter Principle didn't cover what happens when systems are that complex. Everyone is always at his or her level of incompetence because the system is so bad.
And the more complex the job, the easier it is for incompetent people to hide in. If you're stacking three rocks, incompetence becomes obvious pretty fast. If you're building the pyramids, no one may notice you screwed up until it's too late.
We also have a society in which people who provide advice about work are elevated above those who actually do it. You end up with fewer people rewarded to do the work. Some of the students I teach reject the notion that they will actually have to do real work. That's for the little people. They're going to be leaders.
"Competent leadership" doesn't exactly inspire awe. Leadership is supposed to be exalted, and competent smacks of low expectations. Maybe we should rehabilitate the word. In Search of Competence! Where's Tom Peters when you need him?
[Management professor] Jim March argues that simple competence -- having people who are willing and able to do their jobs -- is what really makes organizations run. Leaders don't matter that much. They are like light bulbs: You've just got to find one that works.
So competent could be the new high-performance. "We guarantee that all our call-center operators, accountants, and airline mechanics are competent." That strikes me as a powerful marketing message. People swooned over those US Airways pilots who landed in the Hudson because they didn't screw up.
Right. "We were just doing our jobs." Ideally, they'd be left to keep doing those jobs. But The Peter Principle says you're rewarded for competence with something you're not competent at. If you're a great lawyer, you become head of the firm. If you're a great doctor, you're given an administrative position.
I like to think incompetence has a unifying effect. Companies with crap service goad customers into uniting against them.
That's the common-enemy argument. I knew a dean at another school who was awful. A group of religious women there despised him so much that they created a prayer group. Once a week, they would get together and pray that something bad would happen to him. Not so bad that he would get really sick, but just bad enough so he'd have to leave his job.
He's still there.
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