“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Laurence J. Peter wrote those words as satire in 1968. But as with most effective satire, it points to an underlying truth.
The Peter Principle describes what can happen when an employee does well in one job and is subsequently promoted. She does well in the new role and is promoted again. This continues up and until the employee is put in a position where she stops performing well and is, therefore, left in a position where she is incompetent.
The underlying truism of the Peter Principle is so pervasive we see versions of it portrayed in movies quite often. It’s become almost a universal inside joke.
Peter in the office
In the 1999 movie Office Space, the main character named – wait for it – Peter works hard but cannot get ahead. It’s only when he refuses to work overtime, plays games at his desk, and incessantly misses work that he gets promoted to a managerial position. This happens because the work consultants brought in to evaluate the company, “the Bobs,” see themselves in him. Clearly, he must be management material.
Office Space is a workplace satire that many people find to be too close to their own reality. Peter and his friends are observing real corporate incompetence in action.
For an employee who has always done so well in your positions that you’re promoted and entrusted with more responsibility and expectations, bumping up against your own limits is not fun. It can lead to frustration and burnout. It can also lead to resentment from folks lower in the pecking order trying to make their way up – and from colleagues burdened with some of the workload that you find yourself suddenly unable to manage.
At the same time, you find that higher-ups who were only too happy to see you succeed before are suddenly dissatisfied with your performance. Hence, stagnation at your level of incompetence.
How not to Peter out
If you’ve been in a position where you feel you’ve run into this wall, you know how defeating it can feel. But there are ways you can avoid the stagnation and frustration of reaching the level of career incompetence Laurence Peter so clearly defined.
One way to avoid the Peter Principle in your life is to commit to continuous learning. It might be fun to think that once we’re done with school that that’s all there is to it. However, heading off to a career thinking you’ve learned all you needed to know for the next 40-50 years is a sure way to find yourself stuck in a position you cannot move beyond, or even ushered into early redundancy.
Thankfully, continued learning is now available at our fingertips. Many lessons are available online for free or for a nominal fee. In most cases, you don’t have to go to night-school or pay thousands of dollars to attend a semester’s worth of classes. You can watch or listen to lectures on your phone during your lunch break, commute, or time at the gym.
This may take some effort, but getting at the knowledge is easier than ever. And avoiding the Peter Principle requires devoting oneself to continuous learning.
What are you really good at?
Another way to avoid personifying the Peter Principle should be obvious. We often talk ourselves into doing work outside our best aptitudes because “that’s life,” right? Yet there are certain career fields each of us know we are not best suited for.
When I was in my gap year between high school and college, my older sister was a newly minted nurse. She’d always wanted to follow in our grandmother’s footsteps in that career. It’s a career that has been wonderful for her.
However, nursing is not a good career for me. Any time we would talk about what I wanted to go to college for, she would push me toward nursing. I would remind her I was asked not to donate blood anymore because I blacked out and vomited every time. I am hemophobic. In fact, simply thinking about blood too long can make the room start spinning.
Nursing is a fulfilling and well-paying career for many. But it is not an aptitude of mine at all.
That doesn’t mean that if I had a passion for healthcare, I would be unable to put my aptitudes of writing, organization, and time management to use in some way. Hospital administrators and medical office staff are all integral parts to helping people obtain quality care without quite so much fainting.
So there you have it, leaders: Devote yourself to continuous learning while at the same time being mindful of your natural talents and you too can avoid stagnation and self-satire. Or to put it another way, you can rise and rise and never find the level of your incompetence.