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Help Your Clients Avoid the Peter Principle

15 Dec 2010 5:22 PM | Anonymous

By George Dutch

In his 1969 book by the same name, Dr. Laurence Peter formulated the following principle: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  It is based on the notion that employees will be promoted so long as they work competently until they reach a position where they are no longer competent and there they stay, stuck, unable to earn further promotions. This principle is famously played out in the popular TV series “The Office” by actor Steve Carroll, who portrays the role of Michael Scott, branch manager of paper company Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  If you watch the series, you may find it hard to believe that Michael was ever competent at anything! But the fact is that people are promoted because they are competent.  And they are competent because they have a particular flair or talent or strength for performing certain job duties.  Their work is valued so much that they are often rewarded with a promotion to a supervisory position.

However, the Peter Principle becomes active when a managerial position requires a set of skills that do not come easily or naturally to the person who has been promoted into it. For example, I have worked with a good number of engineers who excelled at troubleshooting technical problems, especially when they were left alone to work in their own way at their own speed to analyze a particular problem and design a solution, often building the solution with special tools and equipment. They were masters of a physical world of structures, machinery, and processes.  Then they are promoted into a managerial position where they are required to collaborate with others on committees and make decisions through long meetings before moving those decisions up a hierarchy for approval. In the meantime, they must resolve disputes between employees who disagree on how to proceed; they must plan years in advance for potential scenarios and compete with their colleagues for scarce organizational resources, and fight about money and budgets—none of which they have a genuine interest in or a knack for dealing with. However, some engineers feel they must put up with this job misfit for the sake of a better compensation package, or the admiration of their peers, or the expectations of power, prestige, and status for someone their age. And, of course, it is very difficult for accomplished individuals to admit that they might not be good at everything they turn their hand to. Ego. Or, to put it in traditional terms: "Pride goeth before the fall."  But, the simple fact is, not every individual is cut out for management.  The American Management Association estimates that only one-third of individuals have a knack for core managerial duties.

Motivation is the key. If someone is not motivated by their core job duties, their performance will degrade, so that when the inevitable downturns of an economy occur, they may be laid off when their performance is compared to others who are suited to managerial duties and feel motivated by their work.  Or, the level of job dissatisfaction fosters dis-ease that leads to physical illness, anxiety, depression or any number of stress-related disorders. Sure, we can learn managerial skills by taking courses, but just because we know how to do something doesn’t mean we will do it.  For example, you can learn how to do conflict resolution but if you avoid conflicting situations or highly charged emotional encounters then you will not excel in such situations.

Listen for talent clues. Helping our clients find their right job fit is never easy.  But, in the end, guiding them into a managerial position when they are not suited for it does not serve them or you in the long term.  Listen carefully to their stories.  What parts of their experiences energizes them most?

- Do they come alive in situations during which they take an active role (high-involvement or high-touch) in managing the talents of people under their authority?

- Are they comfortable with authority and the inevitable stresses and strains that accompany it?

- Do they have a knack for selecting or choosing people, matching tasks and people, and tapping the strengths of those under them?

- Can they negotiate well with peers for competing priorities in their organizations, or do they tend to withdraw when they need to be assertive?

- Do they confuse leadership—the ability to motivate and inspire others to follow a cause, aim, purpose, or objective—with management, a talent for resolving conflict at different levels between corporate goals and union objectives, between stakeholder interests, contract disputes, supplier complaints, or putting out fires on the front lines of daily operations?

There are many paths to success.  The one most healthy is the one most natural.  Help your clients stick to their strengths.  Help them navigate the world of work and advance in their careers efficiently and effectively.  By doing so, you add value to their careers and to your business.

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