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Preventing The Peter Principle

Mar 28, 2012 10:32:07 AM


Vancouver-born Dr. Lawrence J. Peter, author of the bestseller The Peter Principle, theorized that in a hierarchy, employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. The book, to this day a classic interpretation of how not to build a management team, explained his view that a capable and talented employee will advance to their highest level of competence, only to be promoted into a position where they are hopelessly inept.

We’re all aware that with a promotion comes a bounty of temptation: a raise, a fancy new title, more jurisdiction, and praise from your higher-ups. But what happens when you’ve settled into a perfectly suited position, an immaculate balance of challenge and proficiency, and are rewarded for your consistent good work with a promotion? All of the tempting rewards become a metaphorical cloud, inevitably blurring the reality of the situation: if you are unprepared, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

When an employee is promoted beyond their competence, no one wins. A solution might be to separate stigma from demotion, allowing employees to move back into the position they demonstrated peak performance in, if the shift into a new role does not breed success. This simple institution would allow corporations to avoid the effects of The Peter Principle. Consider it Trial and Error, with no repercussions. The Dilbert Principle, based on the satirical office comic, represents the other end of the spectrum, “Corporations tend to promote the least competent employees to management positions to try to limit the operational damage they can inflict on their companies.” Obviously, the result of either principle is far from ideal.

So, if you strive for personal growth, and delight in expanding your knowledge when faced with a challenge, the following are some tips to keep yourself sharp, and ready for the next step.

  • Set, and meet, your goals.
    What is your dream job? Write a job description for the role, in order to know and understand what that job entails. Use job postings for similar positions at other companies as a jumping off point. This will make you aware of what would be expected of you at the next level.
  • Be honest with yourself.
    Where do your strengths and weaknesses lay? Jot down two lists: a list of your abilities and a list of the skills you’d like to acquire in order to take yourself to the next level. Ask yourself, do you have proof of these abilities? Your next step will be to research and define some ways to acquire the skills you seek, improving your sufficiency for the promotion, and the likelihood of success in the role.
  • Be the cement that fills in the gaps.
    Don’t lose the position that relies on skills you don’t currently have. There are numerous ways to build up your experience and skill set on your resume; take a short-term workshop or class at a local community college or university, or consider volunteer work. At local charities, as long as you show a certain level of aptitude, people are often happy to let you take on more senior planning roles.

In conclusion, the most important tool you can have in your arsenal is an open mind. You are the only person capable of taking yourself to that next level, so learn to market your skills, practice honesty and integrity, and an abundance of possibilities are sure to come your wayeration of employees, ‘sideways’ may have to be the new ‘up’.

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