The Peter Principle is  common in businesses across the globe and here in SVG
Prime the pump
September 20, 2022
The Peter Principle is common in businesses across the globe and here in SVG

Over the last couple weeks, we have been discussing the “Peter Principle” which is the theory that ‘Individuals in a hierarchy who do a good job are promoted to the next level. If they are still competent, they are promoted again to the next higher level. If they are not competent, they are not promoted and they remain at that level. Thus, people stop getting promotions and remain one level above the last level at which they were competent.’ This principle, unfortunately, is very common in businesses and organizations across the globe and St. Vincent and the Grenadines is no exception.

Recently, in conversation with a top executive of a company, he lamented that he was at the stage where he was only doing the need to because there were too many people around him that were not pulling their weight.

He clocked in an average of 15 hours a day and his health and family life were taking a significant blow. Meanwhile, he was surrounded by people who were promoted over the years because of their technical skills in their previous positions and have since been promoted into their incompetent.

The employees who were promoted into the vacancies created, have also been promoted over the years and were currently operating in positions above their competency. It is a vicious cycle that is creating issues of increased errors and poor customers experience within the organization and burnout on the path of the few competent staff.

As long ago as 1767, German author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote a comic play ‘Minna von Barnhelm’ in which a soldier thinks about promotion: ‘To become more than a sergeant? I don’t consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly an even worse general. One knows from experience.’

So, the idea of people having a niche in which they can work efficiently, but who may then be promoted to a position to which they are not suited, is nothing new. Robert I Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, explains it well when writing about the ‘Peter Principle’ in the Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine. He wrote: ‘When people do their jobs well, society [or management] can’t leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals are promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail.’

To understand and accept the logic behind the ‘Peter Principle’, Greensleeves hubs explained the three basic assumptions about business and employee aspirations which must be taken on board. It suggested that to appreciate the validity of the ‘Peter Principle’, you must first accept these fundamental assumptions: –

1. THE DESIRE FOR PROMOTION: Most people who are offered promotion will accept it. Most people are attracted to companies that offer opportunities for growth and to rise through the ranks.

2. GREATER SKILLS AND RESPONSIBILITIES REQUIRED WITH PROMOTION: The higher up the rank employees are promoted, the more demanding the job gets. They are held at a greater level of accountability. They are expected to contribute to decision making which would involve critical and analytical thinking and being able to think on their feet and often make spur of the moment decisions. The more senior the position, more soft skills are required i.e., better communication, interpersonal and emotional intelligence skills. Promotions require employees to have more abilities in more fields.

3. THE UNCOMMONNESS OF DEMOTION: In business, promotion is rare. In the great majority of businesses and other organizations, employees don’t get fired unless for cross misconduct and they are not demoted unless they are grossly incompetent. Simply not being very good, isn’t a good enough reason.

So, what happens next? Well, average performers are left to continue at the level in which they now find themselves, doing jobs modestly, and just about competently, but not doing them particularly well or efficiently. They are occupying roles which may be more effectively filled by other people. They have risen through the ranks by first doing their jobs extremely well, and then doing it competently well, until they have reached a level in which they do their jobs with only a mediocre level of ability. They are no longer a real asset to the companies they work for.

Whereas companies once had employees who were exceptional at their jobs, now they have employees who are only mediocre at their jobs. Unfortunately, that’s the way it will remain for the rest of those employees’ working life at those companies.

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