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Beating The Peter Principle

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” — Laurence J. Peter

This maxim is known as the Peter Principle and is thought to account for the fact that there are incompetent people at all organizational levels, although not necessarily at a given level in a specific organization. Peter’s notion is that people are promoted based on their competence at a lower level. The pool of people who are eligible for promotion to any level in an organization is limited to individuals who have demonstrated competence at a lower level. If you are the employee, you will keep getting promoted until you eventually get a position for which you aren’t competent. That’s as far “up” as you will go; and since everyone knows that is how it works, you will stay there until you quit or retire. Since Peter is right, at least to some extent, how can this organizational tendency be best managed?

First, recognize that the knowledge and skills for success in a lower position aren’t the same as those required for a higher position. Usually, job descriptions are mostly a list of duties and responsibilities. The position description for the next higher level simply says that the employee is expected to “supervise” or “manage” employees who perform the duties associated with the lower position. If you are a brick layer, promotion to foreman means that you supervise/manage brick layers. You get the idea.

As a brick layer, the position requirements primarily focused on being able to correctly lay X number of bricks under Y circumstances. As a foreman, the position requirements include knowing a lot about laying bricks; but actually being an expert brick layer isn’t necessarily required. You need to be able to supervise/manage brick layers. The point is that the major competencies needed to be a successful foreman vary a lot from those required to be a successful brick layer. Being a foreman requires a quite different knowledge/skill set. Instead of promoting a brick layer to foreman, it would make as much sense to recruit a competent, non-brick laying foreman and have him supervise/manage the brick layers. The question is whether it is better to have a competent brick layer who knows very little about supervision and management or a competent foreman who knows very little about brick laying.

Since the obvious need is for someone who knows a lot about brick laying and a lot about supervising/managing brick layers, it sure isn’t difficult to see what is needed. If someone wants to be a brick layer, he will need to serve an apprenticeship under a qualified brick layer. To be a foreman, you will need to be a qualified brick layer and then successfully complete an apprenticeship designed especially for foreman. Unfortunately, the higher up one goes in an organization, the less likely one is to find an apprenticeship program at that level. At the highest levels, apprenticeship training should be an integral part of an organization’s succession planning but it typically isn’t, if there is any succession planning at all.

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