‘The Peter Principle’: Studies in the Key of Managerial Incompetence
Posted on Dec 28, 2009
Could “The Peter Principle” (along with what might be called the Greed Principle) at least partially explain what’s happened to our country in recent months? We’re not naming names, but, as New Scientist magazine points out, the idea that managerial incompetence is not only common but potentially inevitable has repeatedly been referenced in academic research since its initial advancement in 1969. —KA
New Scientist via Arts & Letters Daily:
The “Peter principle” undoubtedly appeals to the cynic in all of us. It is also quite possibly true, if subsequent academic studies are to be believed. The longer a person stays at a particular level in an organisation, the more most measures of their performance fall - including subjective evaluations and the frequency and size of pay rises and bonuses. It is a finding entirely consistent with the idea that people eventually become bogged down by their own incompetence.
Economist Edward Lazear, also of Stanford, is one person who has tried to pin down why. His suggestion is that it is down to chance. People mostly get promoted because they have performed a particular task unusually well. That could be because they are generally competent, but equally they might just by fluke have been well-suited to that one job.
Lazear postulated that every worker’s ability to do his or her job well is determined by their basic competence plus an additional transitory component determined by circumstance. There is no guarantee that this transitory component will be maintained after a promotion, especially if the new position requires different abilities. An electrician doing excellent work on the factory floor might not have the interpersonal skills needed to manage a team of electricians. A skilled and sensitive doctor might flounder when faced with the multitudinous difficulties of running a hospital. A cabinet minister prudently managing the finances of a nation might not necessarily be the best choice to step up and lead it.
Worst-case scenario: Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry deals with the chain of command in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 corporate horror story, “Brazil.”