The Eponymous Principles of Management – Realities at The Other End of The Peter Principle Spectrum

The major impact of publication of the Peter Principle, in the form of a book and it subsequent wider acceptance, was that people started looking at the individual behaviour at a job and the related competence paradigm in very different light.

If there are legions of people who have risen to their level of ‘incompetence’ on one end of the Peter Principle spectrum, at the other end there are as many people who have been stuck in their present groove because they are ‘too competent’.

We will first take up the typical cases which are the outcomes of either the criteria for advancement – laterally or vertically – in a typical organization or the way human ambition tends to satisfy his higher needs of recognition or self-actualization.

  • Some are afflicted by the fear – either of senior management or of the peers – that promoting them vertically or transferring laterally will cause an ‘irreplaceable’ loss of the required competence to handle the complexities of the job. No one would like a ‘necessarily and important’ task to be mishandled by someone who may a be a novice for that job.
  • There could be some who may have chosen to get stuck there, because of their disinclination to leave their comfort zone. Here too, there are different flavours. Some may have become very proficient in handling the tasks and now are not inclined to let go the perquisite of being fortunate to have a job which has now either all ‘known knowns’, or a few ‘known unknowns’.
  • There could be some others whose need for being regarded as ‘such an important person’ would cause them to create situations(s) where they can maintain the status quo. Or, there could be situations wherein the peers or seniors would so strongly feel these persons to be ‘so important’ that they would ensure these persons remain ensconced in their present positions. The people in the older generation may remember the case of great thespian Dilip Kumar, who was ‘typecast’ by the film industry as ‘tragedy king. Playing the tragic role day in and day out in the reel life led to a state of depression in his real life. He was medically advised to ‘plan’ for a mix of ‘light’ films, which then had resulted in the films like Azad (1955) or Kohinoor (1960) or Ram Aur Shyam (1967).

These ‘irreplaceable ones’, or ‘comfort zone seekers’ or ‘very important’ persons would continue to get rewarded (since they do contribute value in that position) till a point is reached where they become ‘too costly’ for the worth of that position in the overall value chain of the business process. That is the time when the luckier ones may be offered an honourable ‘golden handshake (by way of premature ‘voluntary retirement’) and the unluckier ones may get the axe of the downsizing. In the previous century, the external factor that caused such downsizing was the increasing level of automation and now it is the digital technology that has made fast inroads into the (so called) repetitive jobs.

  • There are people who have consciously chosen to remain in certain position. There is one class of people are well aware of their strengths, and weaknesses. They know well what kind of job they will not be able to handle competently. However, there also people who get promoted because of their competence in the present position and immediately being placed in the higher position realize that this was not their cup of tea. The luckier ones can get back to the positions they can competently handle. Remember the case of the ‘great master blaster’ Sachin Tendulkar, who voluntarily relinquished the captainship of the Indian cricket team and chose to concentrate on his strength, the batting. And as is it said, the rest is history.
  • There are people who move from a level of incompetence to a level of competence. These are the people who are chosen for their qualifications and /or experience as a specialist. However, for various reasons, they seem not live up to the expectations. So, they are moved, either laterally or vertically up to a different position. If this movement is by a conscious design where person’s strengths and weaknesses have been objectively analysed with reference to the requirements of the new incumbent position, the person not only performs at a level of competence, but he is also satisfied with his job. I recall here the case of Mike Brearley, the captain of England team from 1977 to 1981.He captained England in 31 tests, with 18 wins and 4 losses. However, his record as a batsman was (rather) modest, having averaged 22.88 in 66 Test innings, without a century.
  • Many a times it is observed that people move from a level where their incompetence is glaring to one where it is not so obvious. It is more difficult to prove a generalist wrong than a detail man [sic][1]. If you need to be convinced on this scenario, please recall ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, a famous story by Hans Christian Anderson.

Another situation is related to the way the organization structure functions ‘when it comes to task delegation of managerial leadership. Here, typically, mangers delegate tasks that they themselves should be completing. In real terms, the managers pass on the task down the hierarchy until it cannot be completed by the person in the last pass off the delegation ladder. This has led to the coining of (so called) Reverse Peter Principle, which postulated as “within a hierarchy tasks tend to be delegated until they have descended to the employees level of incompetence”.[2]

[1] The Inverse Peter PrincipleJohn E

[2] Reverse Peter Principle: within a hierarchy tasks tend to be delegated until they have descended to the employees’ level of incompetence.