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The Peter Principle: Why is it dangerous and how can you prevent it from ruining your career?

Back in the middle of the last century, Canadian educator Lawrence Peter tried to give a witty answer to the question: "Why are we surrounded by incompetent people?".

More than fifty years have passed, but his answer has not lost its relevance: the Peter principle, or the incompetence principle, is to blame. According to this principle, each individual in a hierarchy has a tendency to rise to the level of his incompetence. That is, any career growth ends with incompetence.

If an employee does a good job at his task, he is promoted. And this happens until the tasks become too difficult for him. In the end, he can't cope with these tasks and remains in the same workplace for many years. This harms both the company and the employee. Not only does the employee stop developing, but they also start to feel powerless when trying to solve tasks at work.

How to know if the Peter Principle is negatively affecting you


A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that the Peter Principle negatively affects the lives of employees and a company's bottom line. Researchers looked at 214 companies that promoted their employees and concluded that "the best salespeople ended up being the worst managers." Does this mean that you shouldn't even think about moving up the career ladder? No way! This means that you need to notice the effect and block the negative impact of the Peter Principle before it affects you.

A person may not notice that the Peter Principle has been negatively acting on him for many years. All this time he hasn't grown; his salary hasn't increased and his career has slowed down. And then when he realizes that he is trapped, he will be too afraid to change something. This is why it is important to determine if you are negatively affected by Peter Syndrome as early as possible.

A typical manifestation of Peter's syndrome is as follows: a person who tries to formalize his work as much as possible, constantly inventing bureaucratic rules that ultimately interfere with doing the work as efficiently as possible. They require subordinates to strictly adhere to these rules. This behavior indirectly indicates that a person cannot develop criteria for assessing work efficiency.

How to avoid falling victim to the Peter Principle


For a person who has realized that the Peter Principle is a problem for him, there are two ways forward: to get out of the system that sets impossible tasks for him, or to increase his competence. Both of these decisions require courage and work on yourself.

If you have already made the decision to leave your company, then the best option would be to get a new job in a large company that supports employees in their desire to develop. But even in this case, training is necessary. For example, General Electric's management training system is considered one of the best. Employees undergo multi-stage training as part of their corporate programs. The best employees can continue their training at the Jack Welch Leadership Center in order to eventually take a management position in the company. But only well-trained candidates can gain access to all of these opportunities: to get a job at a company like General Electric you need to be a professional in their field.

If you are absolutely satisfied with your company but you still don't receive a promotion, it is important to develop managerial skills in yourself that will still be required for career growth. Companies raise professionals in their field, but these employees often lack managerial skills: without these skills, even qualified specialists can lead a company to unsatisfactory financial results.

The Peter Principle comes into play when a community, such as a company, is formed and stabilized. The goal of such a community is to maintain a formed hierarchy: management decisions are not challenged and a promotion is considered an absolute blessing, regardless of whether the employee is ready for a new job. In a hierarchical system, errors are systematically ignored; they accumulate and begin to negatively affect the operation of the system as a whole. Innovative startups have come up with solutions to mitigate the negative impact of the Peter Principle.

How companies can mitigate the negative impact of the Peter Principle


Newer companies can mitigate the negative effects of the Peter Principle by adopting new approaches to management. Any company can implement these approaches. Thanks to this, they will be able to increase their work efficiency and avoid any fatal mistakes:

  • New approaches to promotion criteria. The employee's current performance remains the main criterion for promotion. But the employee will perform a completely different job in another position. Good results in the current job do not guarantee his success in the future. Solution: Consider first and foremost the skills needed for the new job (e.g. leadership skills and emotional intelligence).       
  • Dialogue with subordinates. The work of managers is evaluated by their bosses and this often leads to negative consequences: admitting the mistakes of a subordinate means automatically admitting their mistakes. Therefore, top-level management may not even know about the flaws in the organization of the workflow. Solution: Establish a dialogue with ordinary workers so that they can talk about flaws in how the work is organized. Some companies go even further. For example, at FAVI and Haier employees can even choose their own manager.       
  • Several career paths. Not all good specialists can be managers, nor do they want to. But everyone wants to move up the career ladder. Solution: Create multiple career opportunities so that valuable professionals can develop in their profession and earn more, but not lead the team.       

The Peter Principle hurts both companies and professionals. It can only be overcome by constantly developing and creating communities that share this goal.

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