This principle could measure how employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

Have you ever felt like the entire world was completely incompetent at their jobs? What about you? That awkward moment when you just can’t be good at even the very silly things. We hate to break the bad news, but this might actually be the real case scenario. The Peter Principle might help you understand it better.

Related media: Peter Principle: When Your Boss Is Plain Stupid


Robbing Peter Makes Paul Incompetent

The somewhat satirical Peter Principle basically states that in a hierarchical institution — such as a government or a corporation — every employee tends to rise to the level of his or her incompetence. Sounds pessimistic, though. The principle’s author, the educational scholar Dr. Laurence J. Peter, restated it in another way: Rather than the cream rising to the top, “the cream rises until it sours.”

It seems to make sense if you think about it enough: If you’re good at what you do, you get rewarded; If you’re bad at what you do, you don’t. But people rarely don’t get demoted at their job, despite their performance on the job. What this means is that, as an employee, you’ll only get a promotion as long as you’re competent until you’re no longer fit for the job. Once you perform poorly in that position, you’re not promoted to a top rank, and you’ll be left at being incompetent on the job.

This principle really sounds pessimistic; but it has sinister implications in the real world — from transit delays and power outages to oil spillage and rocket explosions. How many more errors do we need to get wrong before people start rising to the level of their incompetence?


Can You Avoid This Fate?

This principle sounds like that inevitable fate of “you just being lousy at your job” — like its how nature relates to the corporate world.

But whether it is or not, there are ways to navigate the delicate scenario of having an incompetent employee as your boss. As summarized in the Harvard Business Review, management experts Eric Neilsen and Jan Gypen wrote that employees who suspect their manager isn’t quite up to task should ask themselves six questions:

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  1. Is my boss interested in my welfare or does he/she see me as a competitor who needs to be neutralized?
  2. Can I correctly work out what my boss wants or am I stuck second-guessing from what he/she is actually saying?
  3. Will my boss reward — or punish — me if I make improvement suggestions?
  4. Am I capable of doing my job?
  5. Do I want to emulate this boss, or should I distance myself from his poor example?
  6. Should our relationship be friendly or strictly professional?

What’s The Bottom Line?

Here’s where things could improve (or when is it even necessary to quit your job?). This is the useful part to the questions above, but Neilsen and Gypen insist you talk it up with your boss.

“They start with an assumption of good will and argue that subordinates have a responsibility to help the boss help them. That starts with taking into account the boss’s goals, strengths, weaknesses, and organizational pressures.” also suggested by John Gabarro and John Kotter, a professor and an associate professor at Harvard Business Review, in a statement.

Adjust your behavior to make your relationship with your boss easier.

“And it means falling in with the boss’s preferred style of working – Does he or she like to get information through memos or formal meetings? Does your boss thrive on conflict or try to minimize it?”

Be in the position of your boss, and you’ll realize that they aren’t entirely incompetent as much as they claim they’re so good at what they do. We’re all in this together.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Mar 07, 2019.

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