Leadership 4: Why are there so many incompetent people around the office, and how can you avoid becoming one of them?

Picture Credit: Pinterest Marianne Thompson

“60 percent of companies rate the quality of their leadership as less than high. That’s a startling statistic. It also spotlights just how much of an impact the “Peter Principle” has had over the years.” Al Schnur

What is the Peter Principle?

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Laurence J. Peter

The Peter principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter in 1968 in what was supposed to be a satirical novel based on his observations.  But the major premise was proven to be correct: everyone who is doing their job well will continue to be promoted to reward their success until they have been promoted into a role in which they cannot competently perform, and they will then languish unproductively there.  A worker can reach this last, unfortunate promotion at any level, but it is most often seen with a promotion to a management role, because leading people requires skills which may not have been required in their earlier work.  And rather than be demoted back to the last role in which they did their job well, they will remain in their new role where they are incompetent. 

“The “Peter Principle” is a management theory created by Laurence J. Peter. It postulates that employees promoted on achievement, success and merit—not leadership potential—will eventually rise to the level of their incompetence.

In other words, they’ll keep getting promoted until they’re pushed too far and start to harm your company with their incompetent leadership.” Al Schnur, Thepeoplecompanyintl.com https://thepeoplecompanyintl.com/6-ways-avoid-peter-principle/

This phenomenon occurs because promotion is usually based on how well you are doing today in your current role, rather than whether you have the skills to do the next higher position. We saw this play out with our example of the master bricklayer who could build a wall for the ages, but had no skills supervising other bricklayers.  The Peter Principle process looks like this:

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“Workers who do well will keep getting promoted up the ladder until they reach a point where they can longer excel.  Then they stay stuck in the role, getting by with average-to-poor performance, preventing more capable people from taking on the role.  Multiply this effect across all major positions within a workplace and soon you’ve got a company filled with mediocrity in all its top managerial jobs.

While having incompetent people in any role is detrimental to an organization, it is particularly disastrous when the incompetent has been promoted to a leadership role.”  Laurence Peters, quoted by Clement Wulf-Soulage who cites politicians as a group which may prematurely try to make too large a leap.

Being promoted to a leadership position is often a reward for doing your job well, and people have come to expect they will “move up the ladder” if they apply themselves, and eventually, they will have a management position.  But promotion without the skillset, and without proper training, is a recipe for becoming a victim of the Peter Principle.

What is the effect on the victims, those who have been promoted too high, like our master bricklayer?

Obviously promoting people to their level of incompetence is bad for a business, but what is often overlooked is the human cost to those who have been promoted to a level where they struggle. For years and years, they were a star performer, and now they are under-performing, floundering, and they are frustrated, confused, and constantly worried.  In a 1976 Harvard Business Review article, ”The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain,” it was argued that what really happens is that managers are promoted, not to their level of immutable incompetence, but to their level of anxiety and depression, which overwhelms their ambition and desire to succeed.

 Applying our leadership principle that “it’s not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of the people in our charge” we have to prepare our people for promotion by building their skill set to match the needs of their next position, and we must also be on the lookout for people who are struggling after promotion and step in to mentor them.

“Look around you where you work, and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence,” he wrote. “You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.” (Italics are Laurence Peter’s)

To avoid the Peter Principle in our day-to-day work, the leader’s role is to keep their team focused on the goal.

When I was supervising the ABA’s hotline which received calls from people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) detainees would call and describe to my interns the type of assistance they needed, the intern and I would decide what packets of information to send, and the intern would print out the material, address the envelop and mail it out.  From time-to-time I would see that intake forms were starting to build up on an intern’s desk, meaning they had spoken to many detainees, determined what to send, but rather than stop to prepare the packets, they answered the phone when it rang again and collected information for yet another packet.  This was fine if the intern was pacing themselves and could be counted on to send out all the packets by the end of the day, but at times I could tell by the size of the pile the intern was taking too many calls This was understandable because they knew how desperately detainees wanted to speak to someone and ask for help. Whenever I would see an worrisome large pile of intakes I would stroll over and take them on a stroll down Memory Lane to this Seinfeld scene.

See the entire clip here: https://youtu.be/HWTMa76BzH0

After describing this scene I would then kid them, “You know how to TAKE the requests for information, you just don’t know how to SEND OUT the information, and that’s really the most important part of what we do, sending out the information!”

One indicator that a person may be flirting with incompetence is when they consistently focus on the part of their job they are good at and enjoy, (taking the requests for information) while ignoring the other aspects of the job with which they struggle (sending out the information.)  

And this confusion is particularly possible during a crisis, and can occur any every position of responsibility.

When the U.S. became mired in the war in Vietnam President Lyndon Johnson observed, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s easy to forget you came to drain the swamp.

It is the leader’s job to keep the team headed in the right direction,

How to avoid becoming a victim of the Peter Principle – determining whether you should accept a promotion to a leadership position.

In 2017 Liz Ryan wrote an insightful piece in Forbes magazine entitled “Ten Signs You’re Leadership Material — And Ten Signs You’re Not.”  I have extracted a few ideas from that article and will apply my own leadership rules to what she so skillfully observed, but I encourage you to read the entire article which you can find here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2017/11/06/ten-signs-youre-leadership-material-and-ten-signs-youre-not/#1c578ccb33b6

Signs you ARE ready for a leadership position

You ARE ready for a leadership position if you are liked by your peers.

And by “liked” I mean your peers enjoy being with you because of how you treat them, not simply because you are the funniest person in the room.  If you find that your peers stop by to chat with you because you show genuine interest in them, that interest in others is a trait upon which you can build trust.  You will probably also notice that they consider you someone they can rely on.

I was once leaving the office at the end of the day and I jokingly said to the other Intern Coach Karen Castillo, “I am leaving and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

Without looking up she said, “What if I burst into tears?”

I shrugged, “Well, then I would stay.”

“I thought so.  Go on home, I’m fine.”

If you are the type of person who takes care of the person on the left and right of them, and when you see them struggling you act to help, then you have good instincts for a leader. You are taking care of people in your charge whether you have a title or not. 

You are ready for a leadership position if you are the person that people come to for advice and direction.

If people come ask your advice about how to complete tasks, that is an indication that they already consider you a leader within the group, you are both competent and someone they can trust.  I have often had to correct people who introduced me as the Director of my group at work.  I had to explain that actually, I was pretty far down the org chart, but people thought I was in charge because I always willing to go out of my way to help others and those people treated me as though I was in charge. 

One morning in the foyer of our office building in Washington, DC, the security guard asked if I would escort a woman up to the 9th floor for her first day at the ABA.  In the elevator I introduced myself with my usual advice, “Welcome to the ABA.  Nobody knows how to do everything at the ABA, but when you are confused about how to do something, there is always someone who knows exactly how to do what you need.”  I gave her my card. “I don’t know how to do much, but I do know everybody and if you ever have a question, please call me.”  Well, it turned out that Holly Cook O’Grady was the new Deputy Director of the DC office of the ABA and she shared that story many times as an example of the spirit of openness and cooperation that made an organization strong.

In a later post we will discuss how when something has gone wrong and chaos ensues, the leader must restore direction and calmness.  In an office where there is no effective leadership, you can always spot the real leader of the group as the person to whom people look when things start to get out of hand and they don’t know what to do.

You are ready for a leadership position if you have already been a student of the people who have led you.

As you know, I have always been fascination (or horrified) watching those who led me. I didn’t realize how much of a student I had been until I decided to jot down a few observations about the lessons I learned from my leaders for the post “Leadership 2: My First Teachers” and it was so long I had to break it up into sections A, B, and C.

You do have an advantage if you have been interested in watching your leaders and analyzing what works and doesn’t, extracting lessons from good leadership, and learning to avoid the pitfalls of bad leadership. 

You are ready for a leadership position if you are a student of how things work in your organization.

To be a leader you must be interested in how your organization functions to such an extent that you are constantly wondering, “I wonder why they do it that way? Is there a better way to do this?”  Curiosity is the greatest learning tool. If you have often thought you could run the office better than the confused souls in charge, (and you are not a complete narcissist who thinks you are the only person who can solve every problem in the world) you may be ready for a leadership role.

You are ready for a leadership position if you are interested in being both the teacher and the student of those on your team.

John Maxwell pointed out that a leader listens, observes, and is always learning from their team members.  Likewise, I noted that with those people I have mentored I started out as teacher, showing them how to do things, and once I had earned their trust and respect, I became the student as we sat in my office and they shared their stresses, worries, and concerns. As they shared the obstacles they had faced and overcome they taught me new strategies on how to approach problems.  At the end of each semester with interns, I was a better mentor because of the lessons they had taught me.

You are ready for a leadership position if you are optimistic about the potential of those around you.

“Attitudes are caught, not taught.” Marine Corps General James Mattis

People like to be around happy, optimistic people.  They are comfortable with someone who sees the best in them, never judges others harshly, and it helps if that person is funny.

I was once asked what my job was at the ABA.  “I help people recognize their unique gift, I give them the confidence to use that gift, encourage them to share it, which will put them on a trajectory for greatness.”

This was not my official job description, but it is a good guiding principle for a leader because if you are eager to help others perform better, to grow, and to make your time together an opportunity for a life enriching experience, work becomes a fascinating and exciting place.

“Humble leaders not only enjoy watching others succeed; they also do what they can to put the spotlight on others’ victories. Again, this is because they recognize that there is enough success to go around.” John Maxwell

Signs you are NOT ready for a leadership promotion, because you want the role for the wrong reasons.

You are not ready for a leadership position if you mainly have selfish reasons for wanting the promotion.

You want the promotion less for what the job entails but rather because it pays more and has better perks; you like the title; you get your own office.  You want the promotion because you are bored with your current job and being a supervisor looks easier; and you want to tell other people what to do, to finally be able boss people around and straighten things out around the office.

Why would these reasons be disqualifying under my principles of leadership?  Because they are ALL ABOUT YOU!  Later in this series we will discuss “The Two Rules of Leadership.”  Rule #1 is: “It’s NOT about you!”  I think it has become clear, that when the role of a leader is “not about being in charge, but about taking care of those in your charge,” the selfish reasons above are the wrong approach to leadership.

You are not ready for a leadership position if you have a negative view of other people and in particular, those you work with.

To inspire people, you have to bring a positive attitude to the table.  I believe that those I mentor can accomplish more than I did in my life, and so I am always encouraging them to take risks, be brave, to suggest new strategies, and if they fail, we will all have learned something, they will have failed forward!

I once had an intern ask me, “After 40 years of working with people in crisis: battered wives, victims of torture, and now desperate people locked up in immigration proceedings because people threatened them in their country, how in the hell can you stay so positive?”  and I responded, “It is YOU that keeps me positive, the next generation which is going to take over for me, your energy, your spirit, your dedication to helping others, you make my heart sing!  How could I not be positive?”

Being a positive person also helps you influence your team members. It is hard to influence others if you are always rubbing people the wrong way. 

“I am always amazed at people who have leadership positions or responsibilities and they are not likeable. People don’t care for them.  It’s tough being in the people business and not having people like you.”  John Maxwell

Credit: memgenerator.net

I will give you an example of how corrosive pessimism around the office can be.  I worked with a lawyer that had the ability to predict the next great disaster for our organization: budget cuts, layoffs, shuffling of roles, demotions.  Geez Louise, I would spend 5 minutes trapped in the pantry with her and I would walk out with visions of the end of my life as I knew it.  And the one thing you could count on was that she was always, 100% of the time dead wrong, every disaster she predicted never occurred.  So what did I do?  I decided that for my own mental health, I had to avoid talking to her. Ever.

You are not ready for a leadership position if you don’t like to talk people about their issues, and you won’t share your own weakness.

I wish that we had developed the custom of referring to our supervisor as “coach” rather than “boss.”  Those two words have completely different connotations to them, the first is someone who takes a personal interest in us, what we have to offer, what are our strengths and weaknesses, what they can do to help us improve. The “boss” may only interested in how we can be used to get a job done, they bristle at the thought of us coming to them with personal problems, being social workers, they are not looking for a Hallmark Holiday Movie moment where they listen to your struggles and help you resolve your problems and both of you walk away feeling better.

Leadership is a people business, you need people skills.  If you aren’t patient, you are not interested in your team members, with all their skills, flaws and foibles, stick with the job you are good at, keep laying those bricks, finishing up that report, watching your secretary do your work.

Watch entire video clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gR7HDERBCQE

In a future post we are going to see that to gain trust you have to extend trust.  You can extend trust in two ways.  You can do it within the work context by increasing the complexity of the tasks assigned to match the increase in skills of your team members, or providing more autonomy by assigning a task and allowing the team member to decide how to accomplish it. But an equally valuable way to gain the trust of your team members is in a personal context, by sharing your own shortcoming, which, in my case was easy to do. When you are humble, and have the confidence to show your weaknesses, your team will trust you with theirs.

I used to always share the story of when I had to threaten to fire a lawyer if he didn’t stop overworking the support staff by leaving everything to the last minute because “he worked best under pressure.”  So I told him if he didn’t change his ways I would have to fire him.

“You can’t fire me, I’m a better lawyer than you are!”

I shrugged. “Every lawyer is a better lawyer than I am.  What kind of a leader would I be if I only hired lawyers worse than me?  Assuming I could even find one!  I may not be a good lawyer. But I am a good leader of great lawyers!  I also protect my staff and will not allow you to burn them out.”

He refused to change and I did end up firing him.

When the leader is willing to laugh at themselves and the messes they have gotten themselves into, it opens the door to frank communication. If you are not a people person, don’t take a promotion to a leadership role.

Credit: Memes and Gifs

You are not ready for a leadership role if you think it is going to easier than what you are doing now, or because you think you will have more time to do what you like.

Leadership requires sacrifice because you must always put the interests of your team members above your own interests.  I mentioned how I saw this with Drill Sergeant Burchfield who insisted on eating last, and I have followed the rule by refusing to accept a benefit which was being denied to my interns because they were not staff.  Or when I gave up the extra money and title of Staff Director in the Ottumwa office because Jim Elliot had a family and needed the money more than I did.

Leadership Rule #1 is “It’s NOT about you.”  In a later post we will see that Rule #2 is “It’s ALL about you” because how you act, the sacrifices you are willing to make, how you treat your team members are the most important factors in determining if they will have a calm, enriching environment at work, or if they will dread the thought of seeing you in the office.  When things go right, you give all the credit to your team, and when things go wrong, you take all the responsibility.  The leader must protect the team, and that can be hard.

President Harry Truman was often frustrated when the federal bureaucracy allowed people to avoid taking responsibility for decisions, they would “pass the buck” as they old saying went. He had a sign made for his desk:

Credit: Canadian Business

And as for having more free time to do what you like, forget that.

One of the biggest fallacies is that becoming a leader means you get to do whatever you want!  Your time is yours! You have an entire team to do the stupid boring stuff you don’t want to do. But leadership means more responsibility and more demands on your time.

When you take a leadership position you find you have many more administrative duties, not to mention all the time you will spend with your team members training them, listening, observing, and learning from them, answering a never ending stream of questions, evaluating how well your plan for the team is working, planning the next phase of your team’s work, and maybe you get to spend the odd hour here and there doing the work you enjoy so much and you are so good at that you got promoted away from it.  

I found that assuming a leadership role was a lot like becoming a parent.  Before a married couple has children they were both working full time, commuting back and forth each day.  Plus they had have to take care of everything else in their life, they have to go food shopping, cook meals, stop by CVS, clean the house, fill up the car with gas, fix that broken screen door, and work in the yard.  If they were lucky they had a few hours a week to spend doing that special hobbies they loved.

Then they have a couple of kids and now they have to get them up and dressed, cajole them into eating breakfast while you make their lunches, take them to the school bus, meet the school bus after school, make a snack, help with homework, pick up after them, get them bathed and ready for bed, read a story. Or two. All while answering a blizzard of questions.  And while meeting these parental responsibilities they also have to work full time, commuting back and forth each day, plus they had have to take care of everything else in their life, you have to go food shopping, cook meals, stop by CVS, clean the house, fill up the car with gas, fix that broken screen door, and work in the yard. 

One night at dinner when our daughters were starting school Rebecka observed, “We still have to do everything we had to before we had the girls, plus we spend all the time with the girls.  We must have had a hell of a lot of free time that we never noticed before we were parents.”

Don’t take a leadership role to free up time to do what you like, unless what you like to do is take care of your team members.

What should you do if you think you have accepted one promotion too far?

Todd Dewett, PhD provides a few tips on what to do if you feel you are not capable of performing your new role after a promotion

One other suggestion I would make to what Todd suggests is to seek mentoring from someone whose leadership skills you admire.  Remember, they were new to leadership once themselves and know what it can feel like to think you are in over your head.

“Don’t depend on yourself and your skills to complete all the tasks. Make sure you ask someone for help when you are stuck. This way your job becomes easier. As a newbie, we feel shy to ask people to help us but, the more open you are to asking for help, the easier it is for you to tackle the things. Make sure you don’t try to complete the tasks designated for others on your own. You should try to handle only your part of the job on your own, and seek help from others for other things. You can always learn on the job about things that you don’t know, and make your life easier. Productivity will obviously increase as a result.” Atti Purani in Signs You Have Started Feeling Incompetent Professionally & How to Overcome It. Read the article here: https://www.geteverythingdelivered.com/overcome-feeling-incompetent-professionally/

Assuming you are still willing to accept a leadership position after all these warnings, lets move on.

Coming up next: Leadership 5: Leadership is a sacred trust and a big responsibility. Those you lead are entrusting you with years of their life. If you are not going to value their time and do your best to provide an enriching experience to those on your team, don’t accept a leadership role, stick with what you are good at.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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