That 's likely to be your natural conclusion after reading Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull's nearly fifty-year old humorous treatise on managerial theory: The Peter Principle: Why Things Go Wrong. The central premise of the book is simple: in a company hierarchy, individuals are commonly promoted based on the performance and skills needed for their existing jobs, and not their future responsibilities. The implication is that everyone will inevitably be promoted to a position for which they are ill-suited, i.e."managers rise to the level of their incompetence." While sounding surprisingly Dilbert-esque, there's no need to consign yourself to an apocalypse of mutually assured incompetence. Engineering managers can do better.
As a study of human behavior, it's a mistake to treat the Peter Principle as an immutable law; after all it's not gravity. Not to mention even relativistic gravity gets a bit tricky at the quantum level. But I digress.
The value of the Peter Principle, however, is in highlighting how promotional mechanisms in a typical company hierarchy can go wrong. Horribly wrong. Specifically, we learn:
- Hierarchies are self-preserving and demand strict delineation of authority
- Skills needed for management are different than those needed for engineering specialists
- Past performance is not a measurement of future skill in a new role
- Existing incompetence can compound future incompetence
From the above we can learn what to measure and how to avoid these established traps, evolving the promotional process in your company into something more effective and resilient. But be warned: it will not be easy.
Break the Hierarchy
The limitation of an absolute hierarchy is the fact it's absolute and inflexible. Authority is based on that fixed structure. So here's the challenge: you're trying to measure candidates on their future capability to wield authority. You're going to have to give them some temporary authority before you consider them for promotion and see what happens. You're so busy you need to delegate anyway.
And here's the real kicker, you need to do this not only for your suspected best candidates, but for everyone. There are three reasons for this:
- You probably have feelings about your current favorites based on their existing performance with their existing skills. That's a bias unrelated to what you're trying to measure. You may find the dark horse actually has the right skills mix for the next position.
- You can't rely on volunteers because often the most effective leaders are the reluctant ones, not the notorious ladder-climbing goats. The right people may need to be pushed a bit in order to grow. Guess who has to do the pushing?
- Many engineers simply don't know if they want to manage or not. There's one way to find out for sure and that's to give them a taste of it.
Perhaps you're worried about the costs associated with giving various underlings bouts of authority. Many, if not most will undoubtedly fail in their assignments and that certainly isn't free. However, try comparing that to the cost of having incompetence permanently ingrained in your leadership. Yeah, that's what we thought.
Management and Specialist Equivalency
Recognize that the skills mix required for effective management is different from dedicated engineering specialists. Most people will have stronger skills in one or the other. Just because someone doesn't have managerial skill doesn't make them a bad employee, just a different one. That's where most corporate hierarchies often fail - consigning the technical experts to second-class citizenry under the managers.
A viable career path must exist for both, because you need both to survive.
- Don't let an effective technical specialist be squeezed into a managerial position against their will, especially if it’s to satisfy tenure or pay scale requirements. You're killing the employee and the company at the same time.
- Flatten your pay and benefit structure between managers and senior specialists. That may be a challenge if your entire HR department is already plagued with incompetence. Find allies. They struggle with this as much as you do.
- This includes you. What if in a moment of self-consciousness, you realize you're infected? If you've been promoted to incompetence, do something about it. It may be frightening, it may be humbling, but otherwise you stand to forever limit your own success and the company's. Can't find a solution in your current company? Find another. Can't find another? Start another. Many great companies have started this way.
Overcoming organizational inertia and tradition is never easy, and so it might be tempting to dismiss the above suggestions as too daunting. Seldom are such challenges overwhelmed by a lack of a workable solution, but rather from a simple lack of trying. Remember that Pete's principle is a warning, not a guarantee. Using this knowledge wisely in both your career and the careers of those you manage, even in small doses, might just make all the difference.
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