The Peter Principle

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The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle, as referenced above, is, “the theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to, and remain at, a level at which they are incompetent.” Growing up, it was my grandfather that first explained this principle to me but he had a slightly more optimistic version of it which included the person who has accepted a position of incompetence being laterally moved into a position where they can be competent as a kinder form of a demotion.

The problem

There is always that DBA in your organization. You know who I’m referring to, I recently heard Grant Fritchey referring to him as “Timmy” but no matter what their name is you know them. Timmy is the DBA that makes you wonder everyday whether you are going to have to put out a self-induced fire in production or have to answer a question like, “why, in the world, would you guys do that?”

When Timmy is a reasonably paid, junior, DBA he is easy to deal with. You expect to have to provide guidance and education, and there is something in the back of your mind that remembers to ask the, “just in case,” questions. Often those questions prevent major problems and you feel good about yourself for thinking of them in advance and passing on your knowledge to Timmy. Where things really go wrong is when you have to deal with Bob. Bob, is similar to Timmy but he has several years more experience with a senior level title and paycheck to match.

Bob is usually a product of the Peter Principle. Likely, he was competent working on projects of moderate difficulty with limited, but some, supervision. Now he is running large scale projects and people look to him for results without providing any supervision. This is where we come in. A person who has hit their level of incompetence usually won’t admit it but they feel it. So, they do the right thing and reach out to others for help. The problem is that Bob isn’t going to grow because he has already reached his limit or maybe doesn’t have the motivation to grow. This situation can quickly turn into you taking on a portion of his job responsibilities whether officially or unofficially. Another possibility is that he will just make your department look bad and cause even more after hour troubleshooting sessions then you already had.

So what is the solution here?

I’d like to hear from all of you about what your solution ideas are because the two I know are less than kind. The preferred one is to do as my grandfather said, alter his job responsibilities back into a role that suits his abilities without any pay cut or official demotion. The second one is to do that hard thing and realize that you need that senior position filled so you will have to replace him with someone who hasn’t hit the ceiling of the Peter Principle.

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