Perverted Peter Principle: cold progression

In the twenty odd years I have helped organizations to improve their level of professionalism I have discovered a phenomenon that I named ‘Perverted Peter Principle’. Its mine. It has my copyright on it. Patent pending… Where was I?

Peter Principle

I guess you know the classical Peter principle (see here). It is a theory named after Laurence J. Peter. According to that theory managers select people for a promotion based on the performance in their current position rather than the future role. This leads to the effect that employees get promoted at least once more after having reached their limit of competence. Scott Adams gave this observation an even darker twist when he had Dogbert say:

Leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow.

By the way: you might remember that I compared leaders to martial arts masters. Here is a difference: in martial arts there is always an exam with a defined set of requirements before reaching a certain grade.

The Peter Principle in itself is a challenge to handle. But it occurs mostly together with promotions. And that makes it fairly easy to discover – if you keep your eyes open.

Enter the Perverted Peter principle. This bastard usually strikes without the person in question changing anything. What’s happening?

Perverted Peter Principle

Imagine a person working well within her limits of competence. Now the company grows and with it increases its level of professionalism. Usually management will define more focussed roles. It makes people responsible for a smaller part of the value chain. In exchange it requires higher performance and higher quality. Hence you could say management is changing the job descriptions quietly.

This increase in standards may exceed our hero’s competence. In that case suffering ensues: Our hero deemed herself a jack of all trades. And now the company only values parts of her skills (and interests). That in itself might leave her bored and disappointed. To make matters worse she begins to feel she is getting less successful because she has difficulties to cope with the increased requirements. Often both effects happen unconsciously. As a result our hero feels bad. And the company starts suffering too: a formerly good employee is becoming a problem.

Life is sometimes brutal like that: could progression of her job description hit our hero hard.

Cold progression: What to do?

As a manager how can I deal with the Perverted Peter Principle?

1. Watch out!

Watch out for Perverted Peter hitting your employees. Check the emotional level of your direct reports regularly. Flaring cynicism, sarcasm, bad temper: sure signs that something is not right. It may not always be Peter. But it is always a call for action!

2. Do a risk assessment

You as a manager are usually the driving force behind increased standards. So make a risk list. Who will have to push his game most to get through?

3. Make her realize the situation

As mentioned earlier the employee in question is often not clear about what is happening to her or why. The first step is to make her realize what is going on. Of cause that means you have to realize it first…

Oh, are you sure you made the new rules clear enough? Communicate your vision for the future again. And again. And then again.

To overcome the Perverted Peter Principle requires change management on a personal level – arguably the most difficult challenge in leadership. It is not uncommon that personal change – like grief – starts with a phase of denial (see Richard K. Streich’s 7 stages) . The person in question will find good reasons why change is not required. So be prepared as a manager that creating insight might be more difficult than you think.

4. Create hope, destroy hope

You should give your engineer the hope that you together will find a way to make her successful in the changed situation (a ‘coalition’ in Kotter’s words). You should destroy hope, that she will wake up one day and things will be “back to normal again”. Make it clear that there is a change project starting for her and that there is no alternative to dealing with the change.

5. Go the soft way or the hard way

If you see a momentum in your engineer to tackle the challenge: be a good coach! If you still don’t see it: created a crisis (or a “sense of urgency” as Kotter would put it).

But, isn’t this brutal?

Yes it is! The effects of Perverted Peter are quite similar to its original counter part: a person exceeds her personal level of competence. That is never beautiful to watch. To make matters worse the Perverted Peter Principle often hits several employees at the same time.

But can we risk entire companies by not raising the bar?

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