Article (October-2016)


Re-visiting principle of Incompetence

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick

Designation : -   Associate Professor and Head HR and OB

Organization : -  Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning In Management (EIILM), Kolkata


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Incompetence, the word most dreaded by managers. Woe betides the manager who is declared incompetent by his superior and worse, by his subordinates. In the corporate world, it is certainly a state worse than death. The word itself is so potently disagreeable by virtue of its connotations that it is so sedulously avoided in the workplace.

Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull enunciated the Peter Principle in their eponymous book. Incompetence, according to Peter, was the level at which a man could no longer be equal to his work. Theoretically, all men and women are potentially incompetent; only that some fail only when called upon to play God! Thus, incompetence is latent in some and blatant in most.

The Peter Principle states: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." And this occurs in an organisation by the vice, not virtue, of over promotion. The natural corollary is that over a period of time the entire organisation is manned by incompetent people. The efficiency of a hierarchy is inversely proportional to its Maturity quotient (MQ), where MQ=Sigma employees at level of incompetence multiplied by 100 and in turn divided by Sigma employees in the organisation. Thus, when MQ reaches hundred no useful work will be accomplished. 

The Peter Principle spotlights the fact that every organisation feels the overpowering compulsion to promote a person from one level in the hierarchy to the next higher level. The danger of this predilection is that often this is from a level of competence to a level of incompetence. Thus, a competent mechanic is promoted to become an incompetent foreman, a competent foreman is made into an incompetent superintendent, a competent teacher is made into an incompetent vice-principal and a competent soldier is promoted to become an incompetent Field Marshal. In all these cases, the employees had been promoted to a position that they were incompetent to fill. Or, in other words, they have been promoted from a position of competence to a position of incompetence. 

Over a period of time, the organisation tends to be filled with employees who are incompetent to operate their positions. In such a situation, one may well ask how does the work get done? Peter answers, "Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence." This explains how large bureaucracies and large public utilities turn out work in an even tenor. This is probably due to the fact that at the base of the pyramidal structure of the hierarchy there exists a large workforce who, by virtue of their intelligence and education, is still functioning at levels where they are superior to their job or in other words competent. This notwithstanding, organisations regularly indulge in over promotion. This results in a number of situations often catastrophic to organisational fortunes, but comic as a managerial spectacle.

Peter sums up such promotions as pseudo promotions; the `lateral arabesque' is nothing but a pseudo promotion consisting of a new title and an office in a remote part of the building. Peter cites the example of a competent office manager who, after promotion, found himself at the same salary working as coordinator of inter-departmental communications,supervising the filing of second copies of inter-office memos. The other pseudo promotion is the `free-floating apex', which is nothing but a point in an organisation where there is no organisation below the promoted employee. He has nothing to do and nobody to supervise. The concept of `percussive sublimation' is also similar wherein an incompetent manager is kicked upstairs to get him out of the way. 

The moot question "Who defines competence" is answered by Peter: "His superior in the hierarchy determines the competence of an employee. If the superior is on the level of competence, he will evaluate his subordinate based on his output such as his productivity or his achievement of whatever goals he has been set." But a superior who has reached his level of incompetence is likely to evaluate on the basis of his inputs such as promptness, neatness, and courtesy to his superiors, internal paper work, conformity to rules and so on. Peter says that in such a situation, internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service. This Peter calls as the `Peter's Inversion'. Sadly the `inverts' have the ability to procure more promotions in an organisation. 

Peter states that in any organisation the distribution of super competent, competent, incompetent and super incompetent people occurs in the pattern of a bell curve, with super incompetent and super competent people being on the fringes of the curve , and the large majority of the competent people occurring on either side of the median. Super competence, Peter points out, is more hazardous than incompetence since super competence disrupts the hierarchy.

Peter has classified incompetence into three categories: Physical incompetence where a man who had been promoted beyond his physical capabilities; social incompetence where a man is promoted to a step which is beyond his social capability; and emotional incompetence where a person is promoted to a level which is beyond his emotional capacity. Despite being incompetent, a number of candidates find themselves promoted to higher echelons in the hierarchy. This results in their suffering from symptoms which are generally associated with success. These are peptic ulcer, alcoholism, high blood pressure, skipped heartbeat and many more. Those who suffer from these, Peter describes as those who have reached the final placement syndrome (FPS). Peter lists one sign of FPS `abnormal tabulology', which is an unusual and highly significant arrangement of his desk such as: 

Phonophilia: In this, the incompetent manager masks his incompetence by keeping an array on telephones and communication devices with flashing lights, hot lines and so on.

Papyrophobia: The papyrophobe swears by a clean desk and keeps papers strictly out as each sheet reminds him of the work he is unable to do.

Papyromania:The exact opposite of the papyrophobe, he clutters his desk with papers and tries to give an impression that he has too much to do. 

Fileophilia: An obsession with record keeping and filing in the correct manner as this keeps him from tackling the burning situation that needs to be addressed.

Tabulatory gigantism: A yen to have the largest desk in the office.

When someone is being considered for a promotion and a responsible position, top management should have this employee's entire professional journey traced, from the time he started his career. How he coped with change and rose to fresh challenges in the past could be an indicator of how he would cope with the challenges of a new role.