Embrace the Peter Principle

Embrace the Peter Principle post image

You may have heard of the Peter Principle:  essentially it is that people tend to rise to the level of their incompetence.

Mostly this is referenced when someone is perceived to be in a position that is way over their head and they are thought to be failing or expected to fail.

In my early days as a manager I was faced with being promoted over 2 young men who were masters at writing code in a language I didn’t know.  They were very upset I was promoted to be their manager.  In their opinion I was the poster child for the Peter Principle, and for many months they gave me a very hard time.

Personally, it was a very difficult because without knowing what they expected me to know, I feared I would never be able to earn their respect.  They found ways to remind me of my gaps every day.  I realized I had to rethink my role.  Their reaction to me as their manager meant that there was something I needed to learn, although at the time I couldn’t quite articulate what that was.  It was disconcerting to say the least.  As I reflected on that time I discovered this quote:

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily. —Thomas Szasz

In less than a month I had gone from being ready to seize the day with that boost of self confidence that often comes with a promotion to suffering from having my self esteem challenged on a daily basis.

The breakthrough came when I shifted my focus FROM suffering about what I didn’t know TO learning what I needed to learn.

Ultimately my job wasn’t to teach or mentor them in developing their technical skill, but rather to empower their success.  To do that I did not need to learn what they knew or expected me to know.

What I needed to learn was how to lead them.  I was a competent manager, but not yet a competent leader.

18 months later I took another job.  When it was announced that I was leaving, those 2 programmers came into my office to say they were sorry to see me go and apologize for treating me so badly at first.  They also shared that they had never experienced being more appreciated, especially by their customers, than they had in the last year.  Ironically, they could also not believe how much they had learned.  It had turned out to be one of my favorite jobs because of how much I learned personally and how much we learned together.

Looking back I wonder how I would have learned to lead others had I not been thrown into situations that required me to lead.

So while most people relate to the Peter Principle as the end of being competent, consider that embracing your incompetence is exactly what it will take for you to take a leap in your growth as a leader.

Are you ready to rise to your own level of incompetence so you can realize the next level of your potential?

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Enter A Comment

Colby Stream   |   15 May 2015   |   Reply

This is great! It reminds me of a podcast I listed to this morning where Tom Ziglar said that his father (Zig) always surprised people by looking at issues in a more positive light.

I agree very much with you — recognizing your incompetence is just the beginning of the learning path, should you choose to take it.

I wanted to ask, what one thing stands out in your mind today about *how* you went about empowering their success?

Susan Mazza   |   18 May 2015   |   Reply

Thanks Colby! Great question…Essentially I worked alongside them doing what I did best and earned their trust by showing them how to earn their customers trust so they could do what they did best.

I went to work on their relationship with their customer. There was a history of miscommunication and unmet expectations. I helped them improve communication by at first being a part of the communication and showing both sides the gap in understanding each other’s language. In the process I helped them to learn more about the business and shifted their attitude toward their customers from “they are stupid because they just don’t understand technology” to respecting their customers expertise and vice versa. As understanding improved customer satisfaction increased and their sense of being valued also increased. Those dumb users became their business partners.

Paula Kiger   |   30 May 2015   |   Reply

Great reflection, Susan. I was in a situation at my church once where they needed someone to do children’s church (don’t they always?!). The deacon said to me, “you should do it.” I replied “that’s not my gift.” She replied, “sometimes you can’t do what your gift is.” // Ultimately I declined being voluntold to do that task, which is sort of a victory in protecting my use of time, but I think back to that conversation often. *Maybe* the missing dynamic had something to do with her leading me differently (???). Anyway, that’s the scenario your great post brought up. I am glad it will be part of the June Leadership Development Carnival, and appreciate you hosting last month!

Susan Mazza   |   04 June 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing that Paula. I think what you point to is that if we are to grow beyond our current level of competence in any area it has to be an area we actually want to grow into! Sometimes we rise to our level of incompetence and it tells us we need to take a new direction. And sometimes it points us to the next level of performance for us. The key is that we are always the one who has to choose what’s next.