A group of Italian researchers recently conducted a study that found random job promotion was more effective than merit-based promotion. Inc. asks several experts if it could work in real life.
We're accustomed to living in a meritocracy, so the notion of getting ahead based on anything other than skill and hard work seems cruel, almost Kafkaesque. But what if random job promotion turned out to be a better alternative to the Peter Principle, which posits that employees will continue to be promoted until they can no longer do their job well?
A group of Italian researchers ran a simulation of a 160-person company with a six-level pyramid structure. Each employee was assigned a degree of competence and the researchers ran two simulations comparing different ways for competence to carry over to a new position when an employee was promoted. The simulations pitted the "Common Sense Hypothesis" where an employee is as good at their new job as at their old one against the "Peter Hypothesis" in which they have a random chance of succeeding in their new role. In each of these cases, the researchers tested three promotion strategies: promoting the most competent employees, the least competent employees and promoting randomly. Finally, with increased corporate efficiency as the measure of success, the researchers reached their counterintuitive conclusion.
"Promoting at random or alternating the promotion of the best and the worst employees works much better according to our calculations," said Andrea Rapisarda, the co-author of the study and a physicist at the University of Catania, in Catania, Italy. Inc. asked a handful of CEOs and management experts whether this sort of system could work in a real company. Jonathan Feinstein is a professor at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, with a focus on creativity and innovation.
The main defense for what they're putting forward is if you remove one of the extrinsic motivators, such as promotion or other rewards, people will be left just with the intrinsic motivators, as in 'Do I like this job?' If I know that my chance of promotion is totally random and has nothing to do with how well I do, then how I do on the job is going to be more based on how much I enjoy doing it and doing it well. The problem is it's going to create a lot of loss of morale for people and a loss of effort if they don't think their effort is going to be rewarded. On the other hand, if you try to reward people too much for being creative you might actually make them less creative. They won't take risks if they feel that everything they do is being watched and evaluated. Creativity is partly about having fun and being more spontaneous and probably job enjoyment is too.
Donald Asher is a consultant to MBA and undergraduate programs on career issues, as well as the author of Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn't, and Why: 10 Things You'd Better Do If You Want to Get Ahead.
Some companies walked away from their fast track executive programs because they found they were promoting people that didn't really deserve it or didn't really want it. They also passed over for promotion people that weren't in the fast track program and some of those people had tremendous capacity to perform that wasn't identified. So those fast track rotational programs are controversial because of exactly this issue. Promoting randomly could work because people rise to the occasion. We say this about the United States presidency, that it's not the person, it's the position. Some people offer as evidence of this George W. Bush, who after the trials and tribulations of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, did step up and act presidential, though that can be debated. Sometimes you have a situation where people that are patently incompetent get promoted so swiftly that they never have to answer for their incompetence. You want people to hang around long enough to pay for their sins and so any promotion system that allows people to walk away from their sins before facing them is going to allow bad seeds to advance.
Adam Michaels, CEO of Cloud 9 Living, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that sells experience gifts ranging from horseback riding to skydiving.
My first thought would be how the employees would react. If I tell my employees that promotion is based on randomness, the motivation to do a good job and to work hard is going to drop dramatically. Why go the extra mile if it's not going to be recognized and if my less competent co-worker could get randomly promoted ahead of me? [You could try alternate rewards systems, but] I think to a lot of people a title and how you're seen by your co-workers is more important. The No.1 reason people leave a job is for lack of recognition.
Seth Goldman, Co-Founder of Bethesda, Maryland-based Honest Tea, which produces lightly-sweetened organic teas.
No, random promotion would not be for us. We don't think about promotion the way other companies do because we are a very fluid company; we have a lot of people moving from marketing, to sales, even into operations and accounting. So we're not about pigeonholing, we think much more broadly than that. We get our summer interns in as jack-of-all-trades interns and it's really a way to kick the tires on them. We put them in lots of different roles and they either work or they don't work. If they work within our company culture they can move pretty fluidly around to different positions and different roles. About 10 percent of our workforce started as interns; we know when someone doesn't work, it's pretty clear pretty quickly.