By Stephen Balzac
Feb. 17, 2011
A good many years ago, I was working at a small software company. For various personal reasons, the VP of Engineering abruptly left the company and one of the senior engineers was promptly promoted to take this place. Now, this guy was an excellent engineer and I learned a great deal from him. He was a fun person to work with and someone who was always enthusiastic. He was picked for the job exactly because of those qualities and because of his engineering prowess. However, as a manager of engineering, he never appeared to have the same joy and excitement about his job. Indeed, he often gave the impression that he’d rather be writing code than managing other people who were writing the code. After the company folded, as far as I know, he went back to engineering.
At another company, Jim was a star researcher. He was brilliant. He was the person who came up with idea after idea. He did so well that eventually he was put in charge of the lab. At that point, things went downhill. Working through other people drove Jim up the wall. He wanted to be in the lab, not arguing about the best way to do things. He couldn’t go back, though, without being viewed as a failure. At the same time, he couldn’t get promoted until he “shaped up” and “made his lab more productive.” He was trapped doing a job he didn’t particularly enjoy and wasn’t particularly good at.
Both of these stories are examples of a hypothesis first proposed in the 1960s by psychologist Lawrence J. Peter. Today, the “Peter Principle” is spoken about with a certain amusement and a smug “yeah right” attitude. Unfortunately, “yeah right” is the only construction in the English language in which a double positive makes a negative. In other words, the Peter Principle is popularly seen as a joke. In fact, it’s not. Moreover, it turns out that when you have an environment in which someone can be promoted into a job that is significantly different from what they’ve been doing, the Peter Principle is virtually inevitable. The key point lies in recognizing what constitutes “significantly different.”
Well, as it happens, managing engineers is significantly different from being an excellent engineer. Managing researchers is significantly different from being a top researcher. Managing salesmen is significantly different from being a top salesman. However, being a top engineer, researcher, salesman, or whatever is exactly what brings that person to the attention of senior management. If this isn’t disturbing enough, in the study confirming this phenomenon, authors Pluchino, Rapisarda, and Garofalo also found that the best way to avoid it was to either promote people randomly or promote the best and the worst performers equally.