by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
CGG Weekly, March 15, 2019
"The problem with incompetence is its inability to recognize itself."
We have all been in a restaurant, a store, or a bank, and the employee serving us—perhaps newly hired or in training—just cannot complete the task. We ask to see the manager, and when he comes over, if he is good at his job, he solves the problem quickly and efficiently. If he is not competent in his position, he might swoop in aggressively or with a surly attitude, and the situation only becomes worse.
It could be that he is inept, and the Peter Principle has come into play. The Peter Principle is a concept in business management developed in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter. It states, simply, that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
The Peter Principle asserts that a person good at his job will be promoted to a higher position, one requiring a new set of skills. If the person promoted does not have those new skills, he will be incompetent at his new position and not be promoted again. However, he will not return to the former job in which he excelled, but for the rest of his career, he will plateau at the job for which he is not qualified. If he is good at his new job, he will be promoted repeatedly until he eventually reaches a level in which he is incompetent. Laurence Peter's research concluded that this outcome is inevitable, given enough time and assuming enough positions in the hierarchy to promote competent employees.
For instance, a competent mechanic may make an incompetent foreman. Or, a competent school teacher may make a competent assistant principal but then go on to become an incompetent principal, not to be considered for promotion to assistant superintendent. In each case, the higher position required skills not needed at the level immediately below. The mechanic had to know only how to fix cars, but as a foreman he needed to be able to manage the other mechanics and deal with customers. Seldom will an individual admit that he was better in a lower position and ask to be demoted. Human pride is too strong.
Some apparent exceptions to the Peter Principle exist. For example, when an individual is incompetent but promoted nonetheless (kicked upstairs, as it were) is called a "pseudo promotion," a move from one unproductive position to another. Peter calls it a "lateral arabesque" when a person is moved out of the way and given a longer job title.
Sometimes, the competence of an employee is measured by the employer rather than the customer or the public. We might run into a person who seems to stink at his job, yet he follows the rules of the company to such an extent that it defies common sense and hurts the company. Even so, his immediate supervisor thinks him competent because, in Peter's words, "internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service."
He also gives examples in his book of the super-incompetent and the super-competent, who disrupt the company's hierarchy and so must be expelled, a process he calls "hierarchical exfoliation." Consider a super-competent teacher of special needs children. She is so effective at educating her charges that after a year they exceeded all expectations at reading and arithmetic, but she is still fired because she had neglected to devote enough time to bead-stringing and finger-painting.
Disheartening as it may be, the Peter Principle contains a great deal of truth, but it is certainly not true in every case. It misses a key factor: God's Holy Spirit. We few members of God's church look at our jobs a bit differently. We grow—hopefully. We overcome—also hopefully. We know that we are not truly in charge. When we leave the house to go our jobs, we have already prayed and studied; we have suited up in our spiritual armor and are ready for battle. If we are doing it right, we are not just going through the motions at work, treading water, marking time, and watching the clock. We have a greater purpose—not necessarily trying to advance, although that is not wrong—to do an honest day's work for our wages. We are responsible for the administration of our gifts. As Jesus says in Luke 12:48, ". . . to whom much is given, from him much is required."
For clarity, the management principle of Laurence Peter will be called the Physical Peter Principle in contrast to the Spiritual Peter Principle, named after the apostle Peter, a man much like many of us. From what we read in Scripture, we can assume that he was somewhat impetuous, impulsive, and sometimes eager to the point of speaking before thinking things through. He was fallible, as we are. Yet, following his story from fisherman to church leader, we can also see how he grew as a Christian.
This same Peter writes in I Peter 4:10 "As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." The word translated "minister" is a verb meaning "to serve." It is an action rather than a position. The word translated "stewards," however, is a position, the Greek oikonomos, "manager" or "overseer, a fiscal agent, governor, superintendent of the city's finances, the treasurer of a city." Used ten times in the New Testament, it refers in many cases to the apostles and other Christian teachers and leaders.
Adam Clarke comments, "Whatever gifts or endowments any man may possess, they are properly speaking, not his own; they are the Lord's property." Notice this verse in the Good News Translation: "Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God" (Good News Translation® (Today's English Version, Second Edition) Copyright © 1992 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.).
We are managers, each one of us. We manage the gifts God has given us to use in the service of others. The Physical Peter Principle says a person rises to his or her level of incompetence. Conversely, the Spiritual Peter Principle says God has blessed us with certain gifts, talents, divine endowments, which we do not deserve, and we are to manage those gifts.
In other words, we are to get better—improve—at living this life! As Christians, we will not reach our potential until we die. Our trajectory is unlike those laboring under the Physical Peter Principle, where many reach a level unsuited to them, and there they stay. Say, for instance, a Christian was happy as a teacher, but he is miserable as an administrator. If only his pride would let him admit it and return to the lower position—or push himself to work harder to learn the skills necessary to be effective as an administrator.