Do any of these comments sound familiar? Have you said them about someone? Have they been said about you?

“I’m working with a number of managers who just don’t have the right stuff to get the job done. With one of them, I’m trying to tell him how to manage his people and he just can’t get it. Ever heard of the Peter Principle? Well he’s the poster child for that concept.”

“They hired me to bring new skills and knowledge to this place. My boss doesn’t know anything about how to deliver on this project. She can’t teach me anything. So why doesn’t she just get out the way and let me do my job?”

“I got promoted because I am good. I know how to do this project but I can’t get my team to do what I want. We have meetings and I tell them what I want to have done until I’m blue in the face. They have a bunch of excuses as to why we can’t get it done. I’m so tired of the “we just don’t do it that way or we tried that before” excuses I could scream.”

In 1969 a Canadian research named Dr. Laurence Peter popularized the idea called the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle says people tend to rise in an organization to the “level of their incompetence”. Smart, talented people continue to get promoted until they become progressively less-effective. You see just because you’ve been successful before doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in the future. In fact, 12 years of research has shown that about 50% of newly hired or promoted executives fail within the first 18 months. Another 14% fail to meet the performance expectations of their managers.

Why does this happen? Our mind likes to look for clues that tell us what to do. These cues or patterns are based upon past successes. Without guided reflection, we continue to look for clues, pattern recognition until they no longer deliver success. Whereas in 1969 we thought you couldn’t learn or adapt past a certain point, today we know growth is a matter of choice.

Helping managers avoid the Peter Principle means changing your attitude and recognizing your limits not theirs. Here are three things for you to consider.

  1. Ever say “that’s just common sense”? I was speaking with a Director of Operations recently. He was convinced several members of his staff had reached their highest potential.  He described them as “having no common sense”. Common sense comes from a mixture of wisdom, shared experiences and guided reflection. Without any one of these ingredients there is no “common sense”.  Most companies have eliminated people development or use it only as a perk. Yet, our brain tricks us into thinking our experiences are shared by all. Without guided reflection, it is difficult to create a common view based upon shared experiences – the definition of “common sense”.
  2. Check your trustworthiness. We learn to trust based upon ones actions. We follow those we trust. What do your actions say to others? Do people believe in your and your ability?
  3. Handle the “me” issues first. I wish I had coined the term “me issues” but alas I did not. “Me “ issues” simply mean “my concerns and needs.  When I know my needs are met then I can respond to yours. As long as I have to worry about my needs and don’t believe you will, I’ll always withhold and be skeptical of your motives. 

If you work with someone whom you believe embodies the Peter Principle change your view and tactics.  Create a shared point of view; build trust and handle the “me” issues and you’ll see the Peter Principle vanish.

It’s takes a “team”. . .yes it does!  The end of 2009 is near. Soon our attention will turn to 2010 and how to make it the best year ever. This blog talks about an old concept The Peter Principle. I’ve revisited and updated it based upon new information in the area of Neuroscience – how the brain views the world and helps us make decisions.

Ever since the Peter Principle concept was first introduced managers and employees have been wrestling with what to do when “you’ve reached your level of incompetence”. If you work with someone who has, then the question becomes how to work around them. If you manage someone who has been deemed a victim of the Peter Principle; then you have to decide whether to keep them or replace them. If you have been told there are no promotions left in your future then you have find renewed passion often outside of work.

Let me suggest that each of us decide-today-to eliminate the concept of The Peter Principle.  In its place, why not find a way to engage everyone. To value and leverage the collective skills, abilities and talent of the team to create something more than the individual efforts can give. Decide to create a team that will support each other through thick & thin.  A team that handles dissent in a way that creates new possibilities. A team that tells the truth even when it hurts to do it. A team fully accountable to each other and produces extraordinary levels of work. If we do then the idea that people can’t learn, grow or change goes away.

As we emerge from this recession it is important to re-engage everyone. Let us all vow to get this country and everyone in it back to work. Bury the Peter Principle!