The Peter Principle Revisited

In The Peter Principle, author Laurence Peter describes a common occurrence in many organizations – people rise (or get promoted) to their level of incompetence. They do well in a position, whether operating equipment,  completing administrative tasks, or selling in a retail store. As a reward for their exceptional performance in that position they are moved up to the next level, usually some sort of leadership or management position.  Individuals in search of advancement apply for, and sometimes win, jobs they are not truly qualified for. I’ve seen it time and time again in every type of organization and the results are a serious problem in the organization. Not only is there the loss of efficiency, but the frustration and stress on both sides of the equation creates an atmosphere of paranoia and firefighting. When incompetence abounds due to bad hiring & promotion decisions employee engagement takes a big hit and chaos abounds as management works to clean up messes and keep employees focused and motivated.  

The wise organization takes an intentional approach to developing a career path for individuals. Understanding competencies, strengths and talents allows individuals and companies to prevent the Peter Principle from happening. Job descriptions get a bad rap, and many are poorly written, but when done right they can be used to ensure people do not rise or get promoted to their level of incompetence, but rather find where they have the greatest strength and talent and align their job responsiblities accordingly. Once someone is in a position where they cannot perform well, the emotional and productivity toll is hard to overcome.

Big Problems, Small Solutions

Why do we always think a big problem requires big solutions? With this mindset we can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and miss the small solution that can make a big difference. Brothers Dan and Chip Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, talk about this phenomenon. Their observation is that, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over decades.” Most of our problems in organizations do not require decades to improve, but they do take a strategic approach. We have to resist the temptation to put band-aids on complex issues and take a systems view to explore the multiple sources contributing to the problem. In a recent job I was tasked with solving a performance problem with call center agents. Month after month a group of agents fell below quality expectations. I brought in the experts – Quality Analysts, Team Managers, and Trainers – and asked each of them what they thought the problem was and how to solve it. All of them had a diferent perspective and all of them was right. If I had only listened to one group and not the other, small solutions would have been missed. The solution was not a large-scale training program, but a multi-faceted one that included targeted coaching, group activities, and repositioning the agents nearer the help they needed to succeed. It was a big problem with a lot of attention from senior management, but the solutions were small and organic.

Welcome to Minding the Gap

The Minding the Gap blog is a forum to communicate and collaborate on what it takes to get from here to there. It’s a journey infused with leadership and change and progress – a winding path to improve as individuals and organizations. I encourage you to join the conversation, add your perspective, and help create the mileposts of learning and growth.