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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Position of Incompetence

My father and I were talking over the weekend, hopefully not about me particularly (I am joking if you are reading this, Dad), and he told me about a theory from the 60's I have never heard of. It interested me enough to research the idea and formulate my opinion. 

The Peter Principle

The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent. 

Basically the principle and book says that if you great at your job you get promoted. If you have never done the new job, you are probably not good at it. If you improve in this new role, you might then get promoted to the next level. At the point when you can no longer perform in such a way to "get noticed," you cease getting promoted. You have thus reached the point of incompetency. Alternately, those in authority are faced with the obvious choice to promote new managers in times of need. If given the choice, they will select the individual who represents the least overall "loss" to the institution. Hence they select the least competent individual to manage the more qualified and effective ones. This way the most efficient employees still do their jobs and the least productive ones are removed from situations in which they potentially impeded productivity. 

The history of the Peter Principle is the history of organizational observations throughout the centuries. From WikiPedia: 

The same experience was described as early as 1767 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his comedy Minna von Barnhelm translated from German to English: “To become more than a sergeant? I don't consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly an even worse general. One knows from experience.”[1]
In the 1910s José Ortega y Gasset suggested that: "All public employees should be demoted to their immediately lower level, as they have been promoted until turning incompetent".[2]
A similar theory was proposed by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon series. In his 1996 book, The Dilbert Principle, Adams suggested that "the least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don't want doing actual work." In other words people are promoted because of their incompetence in their current role, rather than their competence. 

It's not so simple to nail down though. There is also the existence of the bureaucracy and its necessity for self preservation. In terms of examples, think of the incompetent manager already in authority. Why would this person promote a talented younger individual who threatens to upset the top of the hierarchy? 

Be Optimal

So after reading all this, digesting, and placing myself on the "hierarchy" of my career path, I have some thoughts. First, I asked myself "am I incompetent?" The answer, I hope for you as well, is a resounding "no." In my case I have to take a serious step back and really analyze the situation. Why do I have this job? How did I get this opportunity? I started as a teacher in Louisiana with a penchant for creative lesson planning and technology. I took the initiative to find something more exciting, go somewhere different, and try new things. I taught a year or so and was given the opportunity to be more than just a classroom teacher. Working as the technology liaison for the district, I trained, practiced, and studied on my own. When the opportunity arose to teach others what I knew I took it. Working as a consultant I listened and observed successful administrators in action. I studied best practices for professional development and soaked up every tidbit of research on education, technology-infused instruction, and cognitive theory. Given a chance to move back to the public realm, I was a prime candidate for the position of Educational Technology Coordinator.  The next year was spent studying for the chance to be the Director, should the position open. 

Without gloating, I mean only to point out that I was prepared ahead of time to make the transition to another advancement. So where does this put me now? What is the next position? 

This is the question I ask myself now. I know I have only worked in my current position for one year, but my first instinct in life when entering any door is to immediately locate the exit. This has my mind whirling of course. What if I am optimally placed as an Educational Technology Coordinator or professional trainer? What if I am a truly gifted teacher? Am I selfishly placing my ambitions to achieve more above what I am best qualified to do? Would someone else do my job better than me and if so, am I subconsciously holding them back to protect the hierarchy?   

My answer is fairly straightforward. I am optimal. I am efficient and effective. I believe I was ready before I started each position I earned, or at least more ready than anyone else that could have applied. Not to understate the situation, I am a motivated professional with the intelligence to learn the skills I will need daily. I think the key to my conundrum is self-reflection and balance. We have to know when you slow down and be excellent and when to stretch ourselves and learn alternate skills. We have to experiment to truly understand our own value as well. Finally, we need leaders, both supervisory and collegially, who encourage us to stretch ourselves when appropriate and to be optimal when it is not.