Monday, 4 April 2022

The Peter Principle: Is Failing Upwards Still Feasible?

The Peter principle,  so named after Lawrence J. Peter, is directly adherant to the concept of 'failing upwards'. 

It works on the premise that in a working environment, you're promoted due to outstanding performance in one particular area within a group or function; ergo, you've been sent further up into the organisational structure, with a commensurate salary increase & other benefits. But you've actually been put into a new position where you'll restfully spend the remainder of your tenure growing into a blissful state of benign incompetence. 

In effect, you're now in a position that doesn't necessarily reflect your best attributes within your skillset. It's akin to a brilliant footballer being pushed to become a manager, without having the full gamut of people skills to do the job properly. At best, it's a misstep.  At worst, it's the end of the road.

So why does this happen?

There could be a multitude of reasons, and sometimes it involves a variety of subtexts.  For example, the promotion of Jean or John into the realms of middle management, so that the rest of the team can have the scope to work harder and prove themselves. Or the current manager not wanting to leave their comfortable niche which Jean or John could be better suited to, so promoting them into a no-man's land role instead to save one's own seat.  But that's not the primary rationale here.

In effect, the assumption made is that we're great at doing something until we've reached the pinnacle of that skillset. Beyond that, we'll become less effective, because our motivations and drivers to reach that peak or summit have now disappeared or been satiated with more money & a (sometimes perceived) greater sense of power. As a result, ennui will start to set in due to the cosy and warm, 'slippers-by-the-fire' feeling of having made it to the highest level of achievement. 

And unless we're absolutely terrible at the role, we'll be stuck there for a long time (the 'no-man's land' scenario). Wealthier, mildly happier (subjectively; it depends upon the length of time & psychological drivers), and yet not as brilliant (or outstanding), as we once were, or perceived to be. 

But is it really that simple?

No. Think of a multitude of careers where you've seen growth and adaptability go together more synchronistically. For example, the studio tea person, who has worked their way up to become a producer and even become an owner of their own recording facility.  

Of course there are pitfalls. The noticeable things causing ennui here, are excessive hearing loss & a slowdown in physical & cognitive abilities. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it's a heart-lead business & a recording studio can be an intense and challenging workplace due to ever changing external situations ( e.g. technological advances), and the unpredictable nature of the clientele & the business model(s) utilised. All the aforementioned help prevent the Peter Principle from taking flight. 

Market forces also play a role here (a lack of artists or projects to record, for instance), but there's still a smaller liklihood of failing upwards, as it's likely to be driven by a greater personal investment on every level.  I say this, as I've seen studios keep on running, with their owners reducing rates and diversifying into other areas (e.g. voiceovers, adverts, jingles ,etc), in order to keep the company (and their dream job), alive. 

This isn't uncommon.  Owners of businesses tend to slog at it for longer than their employees as there is a sunk cost for them, which isn't shared in full by anyone else.  This can also give rise to the sunk cost fallacy effect, too. 

On a tangent, getting fired whilst at one company, can sometimes drive people to pursue something completely different and make good in that direction, too. Many entrepreneurs (history is abundant with them, and the internet can help you find some), have started new careers this way.

Alternatively, some people may start at the bottom of an organisation and work their way to the middle, then move between departments and eventually reach board level. They then take voluntary retirement ( or semi-retirement) and set up an independent organisation, which is the culmination of all the skills they've learned and refined over the years at the aforementioned organisation. That's not failing upwards, but is taking a chance in the same pond, but from a different seat by the river. 

The other examples of the Peter Principle not working, is within other creative media fields. Actors, Musicians, Painters and Directors, for instance, aren't encumbered by this, simply because of the more open-ended nature of their professions. The level of chance and inconsistency built into their working lives ensures that it's more difficult for 'failing upwards' to occur here. In effect, you have to keep practicing your craft(s) and honing your skillset(s) for the entire duration of your working life. 

And some actors have turned into successful producers and/or directors, which supports the aforementioned position. You're essentially working from scratch per project, as even with the same technicians & crew, some of the other incumbents (actors,  writers, music and f/x departments, for instance), will have changed. So even if you know what you're doing, you still don't know exactly what to do or how to go about it.

The aforementioned also goes some way to explaining why creativity based workplaces pay so well. The advertising & marketing industries/ businesses are also prime examples of a constant need & reliance upon heavy-duty creative thinking; the end result of a successful implementation of work projects here, can be remarkably lucrative. 

Where the Peter Principle can apply, is in areas of linear, structured work environments. The thinking being that if you're not required to do something that consistently pushes you to think creatively to find solutions in your work, you'll eventually peak & then stagnate . The emphasis isn't on doing this all the time,  but some of the time; no one's going to be required to be continuously innovative & original, every day of the week. 

In essence, prevention is better than cure. And to that end, the involvement of technology in our everyday lives, at work, rest & play, keeps us all on our toes to a healthy extent.  Even the Jean or John who's sat at a dozen senior management meetings struggling to keep awake during half of them, is pushed to stay abreast of software & hardware developments, in order to prevent being left behind or even be overtaken by subordinates who are quicker to adapt, adjust & innovate with technology. Newer staff may be better versed in interoperability and smoother cross- platform integration & workflow, but that's due to using these technologies on a regular basis before entering the corporate environment.  

To conclude, the solution lies in identifying core competencies at regular intervals, and adapting or changing the work given to that individual,  according to the results of the review. Furthermore,  training & upskilling can be offered (or recommended) to keep the individual within the organisation,  yet able to move around departments with less stress. But that's an ideal solution. And we live in a working world, where textbook type solutions can't be adhered to all the time or even at all. 

Nonetheless,  if we're quicker to identify strengths, and can work to improve (or at least work around) weaknesses, then we can remain more sure-footed in our work. And in our rapidly moving technology laden world, the work environment will change to follow suit, or become anachronistic. Automation can take a lot of the pragmatic/systemic processes out of the equation, leaving us to deal with the creative, innovative and more unpredictable aspects. 

Focusing on creativity can (and likely will), eventually lead to many more self-employed people. That's a good thing in many ways, because there's zero ability to hide behind the large, corporate veneer of a successful organisation; you'll literally only have yourself to thank or blame for the success or failiure of your career. The current pandemic has created an influx of remote working situations. Digital nomads also fit the aforementioned bill. 

Not being able to fail upwards will eventually become more difficult as assessment & accountability become a more regular scenario. Again, the use of technology (e.g. zoom based reviews with continual improvements in metrics & analytics for performance),  will facilitate this. 

As already discussed, our current work environment makes it more difficult to pass the buck. The pandemic and it's side effect of lengthier online working (and co-working) environments has put paid to that. Whilst it's been stressful at times, as it can strangely feel more unintentionally intimate due to everyone being in their own comfort zones at home during working hours, it's a stepping stone to prevent the wrong people going up the corporate ladder, and staying there until they become a part of the furniture. That makes it more difficult for the Peter Principle to take effect. 

And that means that no one can rot at the top, forever. Amen to that. 

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