The Peter Principle

There are managers who you like and even learn from, people who make you feel motivated and excited to be part of a team and who lead by example instead of relying on threats and bribes.  And then there are managers like Roy.  He’s not a bad guy and was a decent engineer, but some people should never be promoted to management!

Robin was trying very hard to be diplomatic and failing miserably.  Roy had been a great programmer and when their boss had retired everyone assumed Roy would be the obvious guy to take over as Team lead, but his skill as an engineer had completely failed to translate into skill leading a group of engineers and he was floundering.  Everyone knew it, including Roy, and his panic at suddenly being bad at his job had made him defensive, which of course only made things worse.

She wasn’t trying to be critical, but things were quickly turning toxic and she wasn’t thrilled to have to contemplate looking for a new job.

Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?

Jeanine had briefly studied organizational theory before dropping out of her grad program when she had her first child.  Having a career and building a human was all the stress she could handle.  She’d been talking about going back for most of the decade since.  In the meantime, she kept up with the field as best she could by reading on her own and finding excuses to talk over the ideas with friends.

Ok, so basically this guy Lawrence Peter argued that in most human organizations people get promoted based on their competence at the job they were doing previously, not based on how they’d perform in the job they’re getting promoted into.  Which means that over time, everyone who climbs the ladder will eventually get promoted to their position of incompetence where their inability to perform prevents them from advancing further and every large organization that doesn’t actively take steps to prevent it will end up being run by incompetent people.  It’s a side effect of the fact that our brains haven’t adjusted to moving out of a hunter gatherer society where it made sense to have the best hunter lead the hunt.

“So what you’re saying is it’s not Roy’s fault that he sucks at his job and I should just blame biology?”  Robin was obviously skeptical and her laugh dripped with sarcasm.  “Roy doesn’t need my pity, what he needs is a crash course in basic management skills.”

Robin stopped to take a sip of her beer.  It had been a long week and even without an incompetent and defensive manager she’d have been tired.  Her relief at it finally being Friday night was palpable and, as much as she enjoyed spending time with Jeanine, what she really wanted more than anything was to curl up in a comfy chair and read a book.  She started to make an excuse and stood up without looking behind her, and bumped into a couple guys who were walking past.  Robin apologized reflexively as she turned around and was surprised to find herself looking up into a face she recognized.  It took a second to click and then

John!

He laughed at her surprise and she tried not to let the way the crinkles around his smile made her feel register on her face.  They had talked a bit on skype after that first initial meeting, mostly work stuff but occasionally veering off into personal lives, music, sports.  All the standard  small talk.  She thought he’d wanted to ask her out but he never seemed to work up the courage so bumping into him here was as unexpected at it was pleasant.  He’d come out to Oakland from the city to meet a friend, Charles, who he promptly introduced.

Sorry, it looked like you were about to leave,  I didn’t mean to bump into you I should have been watching more carefully…

Oh no!  Nothing to apologize for, I walked into you.  Actually I was just going to get up and get another round.  Want to join us?

The two men looked at each other and it was Charles who spoke first.  “Actually, that would be just about perfect.”  Jeanine quickly chimed in “Well I’m glad that’s settled then!  You two go get us a pitcher” as she playfully shooed them away and motioned Charles to come sit by her.

John pushed through the crowd, Robin following after him, trying her best to not to make the fact that she was staring at his butt overly obvious.  She failed.  He didn’t mind.  It was a good night.