An Email Test for the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle states that in most hierarchical organisations, there is a natural tendency for employees to rise in the management hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence. This is a statistical statement about people in an organisation, and there are cultural and management practices that can be put in place to help organisations avoid that problem in aggregate. In this article, I am more interested in how the Peter Principle plays out at a personal level. We have all seen colleagues that get promoted to a level at which they become incompetent. In rare situations, the person has enough self-awareness to eventually notice the problem, and the brave ones will actually take steps to fix the problem, sometimes by accepting or even actively seeking a demotion (of sorts). But most people who succumb to the Peter Principle just struggled on, sometimes for years and years, to the agony of those around them.

Having worked in academia, private sector, and public service, I think I have a simple and universal test to determine whether someone has succumbed to the Peter Principle: he whose email response rate collapses from the personal norm immediately after a promotion and failed to recover after 3 months has most likely reached his level of incompetence.

It’s a fairly crude test / conjecture but I think it works. Better still, it’s a test that can be used for self-diagnosis: if you feel your inbox is almost always out of control and you find yourself complaining about it to everyone, chances are you have fallen victim to the famous principle.

The email test can also be done at a more granular level. At a fundamental level, each person in a hierarchy deals with three different types of colleagues: bosses (up), direct reports (bottom), and peers (side-way). Naturally, the upward communication with bosses seldom become an issue as a person is promoted through the hierarchy. (This is also why big bosses are particularly ill-positioned to see the Peter Principle in action in their organisations.) Depending on whether a person is naturally inclined to operations or strategy, the communication with direct reports or peers (or both!) start to suffer as the person reaches his level of incompetence. The breakdown in communication with direct reports is usually easy for all to see (and hopefully fix), but the breakdown in communication with peers is much more insidious and harder to recognise. This is particularly troubling because at the middle and upper management levels, the greatest value a person can usually bring is working with peers to solve the more intractable problems that fall through the cracks of natural team boundaries, problems where direct reports and bosses can’t usually help. It’s worth noting also that when the environment in an organisation becomes political and tribal, one major contributing factor is a bunch of middle and upper managers who stop trying to work with each other.

Not everyone who has fallen to the Peter Principle will stay fallen forever, of course. Either the fallen eventually grow into their role or the people around the fallen will grow to develop processes to side-step the fallen. Organisations are wonderfully complex and adaptive things! For the fallen who wants to grow into their higher roles, there is a cottage industry of self-help and management literature out there so I won’t say much more other than to encourage people to start simple and use the Eisenhower Matrix to begin to organise one’s tasks and priorities. But to cure the disease, one first needs a diagnosis, and I hope my Email test for the Peter Principle is useful as a diagnostic tool.



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