Magazine article Supervisory Management

Are Your Employees Incompetent or Underchallenged?

Magazine article Supervisory Management

Are Your Employees Incompetent or Underchallenged?

Article excerpt

Is The Peter Principle responsible for some of your employees' performance problems or are the work systems keeping your staffers from excelling?

We're all familiar with The Peter Principle: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

The assumption that everyone rises to levels of incompetence crosses my mind every time I get poor customer service, purchase a product that does not work or assembles improperly, or witness in my capacity as a consultant Byzantine management systems that actually foment poor performance. However, I have to question Dr. Laurence Peter's assumption, because these same people, when not at work, go about their affairs much as you and I, acting mindfully in getting on with their lives.

Why, then, at work do they become advocates of mindless action, willingly undermining their capacity and capability for independent discretion and judgement?

It's my belief that it is not the people who are incompetent. It is the systems of work they feel obligated to follow that makes them that way.

I recall a conversation with a plant manager while we were watching a production line together. "I don't get it," he said to me. "See that fellow over there. He has been working here a couple of years and is an average performer. But you know, he organizes the local hockey league, and he's been president of one of our community's most prestigious civic associations. How can a person like that handle those things?"

I asked the plant manager if he had ever considered the person for a promotion. "No," he retorted. "I have seen all the reports. There are others doing a better job than he is."

We talked further about this person's potential. If he showed leadership abilities outside the company, why not inside the company?

I concluded that this person's performance appraisals, while fair and accurate accountings of events and behaviors, did not provide information that would help the plant manager determine his potential. The only benchmarks the plant manager could count on were the person's volunteer experiences. As we talked further it became plausible to him that this person might be severely underchallenged.

I suggested to the plant manager that he revise the employee's job description to increase responsibility and accountability--to provide the right amount of stretch in his decision making to encourage leadership. I talked with the plant manager recently and learned that the employee responded to the challenge and is now being considered for a management role.

How prevalent are such situations? Based on my field work, I would say that about two-thirds of the time, people are well-matched to their work. …

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