Tuesday, December 22, 2009

incompetence explained

As I'm grounded due to the Eurostar problems, it's a perfect time to think about incompetence in the workplace. This ubiquitous phenomenon was brilliantly explained 40 years ago in the book The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull.

The fundamental principle of the title states simply that:

"In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His [or Her] Level of Incompetence."

Now I like to think of this in terms of schools, where everybody has seen the principle in action. If a teacher is doing a good job at teaching s/he will get promoted to deputy head or head teacher, meaning they will do less of the teaching which they are good at, and more of the management work which they may not be so good at.

If a head teacher still does a good job at leading the school, they may be promoted to lead a larger school, which they might find more challenging. If they are still good at that, they may become school inspector or some sort of bureaucrat quite remote from everything they used to be good at.

The trouble is that in every step of the process, people who do well get removed from what they do well, while people who don't do quite as well, are stuck at what Peter calls their Level of Incompetence.

Note that it's nobody's fault in particular, it's just an in-built flaw of having a hierarchy where people get promoted on the basis of their performance.

The best way to avoid getting stuck at one's level of incompetence is to get out of the rat-race and do something that is outside of any hierarchical order. I seem to remember that in the book -- as it reflects 60s society -- the male employees can't refuse promotion or abandon the rat race, as their wives would object to the feared loss of social status. Hoping that men are more liberated today, they may find it easier to escape!

I hear that the original book got reprinted this year, so get a copy if you can. It really explains a lot of things that would otherwise remain forever mysterious. Like the fact that trains can be stopped by the wrong kind of leaves, or snow that's too fluffy.

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