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Who is Peter and why does he keep getting work?

I work across many industrial contexts, from education to sport and corporate to public sector.

I see the same old cliché manifest itself time and time again: the ill-prepared manager.

When a business engages Gemini Consulting, I always ask about their biggest challenges. Frequently, the response is “weak management” or “poor leadership”.

This is far from new, nor is it even slightly unusual, yet it is costing businesses significant sums of money.

I question further and ask: “what training have they had for this position?”

The list includes professional qualifications, academic achievements and commercial experience.

Now, none of this is entirely irrelevant. However, these qualifications are the price of entry for their position but do not serve as pure justification for leadership and management positions.

These qualifications in isolation give little indication of leadership performance or success. Often, a promotion earned based on these qualifications alone inevitably leads to the individual’s demise. It’s this premise that you can be promoted beyond your capability - a concept referred to as ‘Peter principle’.

So, who exactly is this Peter that we speak of?

Peter is not a highly under-qualified/over-promoted individual, far from it in fact. Peter is Dr Laurence J Peter, the author behind ‘The Peter Principle’, released in 1969. The tagline to the publication, “Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”, concisely summarises the content.

This research was published at the end of the 1960s… so why is it that 50 years on we are still witnessing the same trend repeating, the same complaints, the same processes and, ultimately, the same consequence?

The answer: the psychology behind the principle is as valid as ever.

Three strategies to sidestep 'The Peter Principle'

1) Stop using tenure as a measurement of competence -

There is very little significant correlation, in isolation, between tenure and competence.

Of course, it could (and potentially should) be used as being indicative of ‘flight risk’ or at least those likely to become ‘mood-hoovers’ or ‘fun-sponges’ - those that seem to attend the workplace with the sole intention of making it as terrible as possible for everyone else. For example, it may be evident within certain roles that there is a trend towards leaving or simply 'checking-out' after a certain period of time if they are not re-engaged with an additional challenge or changes made to the role.

Other factors to consider include but are not limited to self-awareness, ability to modify behaviour, emotional intelligence, soft skills, hard skills (specific to the industrial context) and personal/professional values.

2) Be prepared to recruit externally -

Constantly promoting from within has the potential to breed ‘institutionalised’ thinking, which brandishes staff with a “don’t ask/don’t challenge” mentality. Many companies pride themselves on their internal recruitment policy, but this can be a poisoned chalice.

Consider the upside of someone joining from outside – someone with different skills, a different mindset, wider industrial context and even their experiences of failure. Benefitting from an individual's practical experience of what hasn't worked in the past is as important as implementing lessons from their successes.

3) Develop management and leadership skills in your people before promoting them into management/leadership positions -

It sounds somewhat simplistic and obvious, but precedent tells us that it is not common practice.

Even people who do not go on to leadership and management positions will benefit from training and development in these areas. Just being more aware of wider considerations in the working environment is likely to excel performance in whichever role the individuals are currently holding. It comes down to communication and awareness; where people feel that they understand more about the business and what is happening.

Training and development, effective communication, openness, feelings of belonging - these are all elements that drive employee engagement

Gemini Training and Consulting is committed to helping businesses grow and achieve their goals through the development and alignment of the business’ strongest asset; its people.

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