Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Peter Principle

First of all, thanks to Alex Drexel over at Talented Apps for posting about a recent NYT article Random Promotions positing that promoting people at random is better than promoting them for competence.

It's our old friend the Peter Principle in action, which states that a competent person will be promoted to his or her level of incompetence.

It seems that some Italian scientist have now demonstrated the Peter Principle via computer simulation, which shows you're better off picking names out of a hat than promoting someone who is good at their job. Even promoting the worst performers is better.

However, what computer simulations can't emulate is human emotion. If you promote someone based on merit who ends up being a poor manager, their team will at least have the comfort of knowing their manager was once good at something and that doing a good job sometimes gets rewarded.

Whereas no matter what the numbers tell us, there's no way to promote a complete slacker without anger and discontent brewing in the ranks. Now, most of us are desensitized to people hating their managers but it doesn't have to be that way.

I'm just saying.

What is missing is a better understanding of what makes a good manager and identifying those traits as a critieria for promotion. And it's not that hard, we pretty much know what separates a good manager from a poor one. We just don't bother doing our homework most of the time.

That being said, there's no magic formula that makes a manager good for everyone. We see it in sports all the time, a star player moves to a new team with a new coach and stops performing because he doesn't respond to the new coach's management style.

Even with the best will in the world it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time because people are different, not only from each other but from themselves, say, five years ago.

When I was fresh out of school with no kids and working 80 hour weeks I felt like my efforts were holding the team together. I had little appreciation for managers and/or colleagues who knocked off at 6 to go home to their families. I also managed several teams in those early days and kept up the intense pace so that my team would see I was working as hard as they were.

But life is ironic. Today, a decade and two kids later, I have much more appreciation of a relaxed, hands-off management style that allows experienced employees to 'get on with it' with minimal distraction.

Generally speaking, I have found that experienced bosses are more comfortable delegating and often work less that people on their team, which can irritate ambitious newbies no end. Whereas less experienced bosses tend to be control freaks because they fear making career-limiting mistakes, which can be like getting fingernails pulled for experienced employees.

Chances are, you have both experienced and inexperienced managers and employees and they all have to work together. So, regardless of which criteria your company uses to select its future leaders, don't just promote people and turn them loose to reinvent the management wheel. Work with them and help them understand that there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to management.

Their teams will thank you. So will your balance sheet.


  1. I do recommend you read the Leadership Pipeline. This goes a long way to describe levels of leadership and what it takes at each level. Some of what you describe is experience and some does get to what it takes to get to the next level. Good stuff.


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