Factors in the Peter Principle

I started following John Cook’s Blog recently, and he had a post about Successful Companies with Incompetent Employees. It made me think about places I’ve worked that incompetence ranges from “none” to “riddled with” and everything in between. And not just incompetence of engineers (where it is more easily seen if it’s there) but at all levels of management.

In years past (for me) this may have begged that the question be raised: “Are you smarter than your boss?” but with experience I think there’s more to it than that. And the comments on that post really drove it home with the personal experiences of others.

From one comment: “A lot of the Dilbert stuff is inspired by the engineers at the bottom level not having visibility into the factors driving executive decision making. Executives are by and large brilliant people. Their decisions often appear bizarre from below because they are not at liberty to fully explain them. Sometimes, business processes are responding to twisted and paradoxical incentives given by regulation. I’ve worked as an engineer at a defense contractor and there were some clearly insane things imposed on us by corporate rules, costing our organization millions of dollars a year. Digging deeper, the rules were a result of compliance with federal regulations which saved billions in taxes, enabled by different accounting enabled by compliance with byzantine laws which also begat the insane rules. Give the executives the benefit of the doubt.”

And another comment: “While I do enjoy Dilbert, it’s obviously written to flatter engineers, almost all of who would drive any company into the ground if given executive authority due to ignorance of how to actually run a business. Being a smart engineer almost always means being a stupid businessman.”

Being an Engineer does require a certain amount of smarts: the ability to ingest, synthesize, and utilize large amounts of information. But those smarts can be overrun by the limitations of perspective from years of operating at one level. The end result, when combined with engineer promotions, can result in what we would recognize as the Peter Principle. I guess my point is that while many factors can contribute to incompetence at multiple levels, lack of perspective could be a large factor in that result.

Have you seen successful companies with incompetent employees? How would you combat the deleterious effects of the Peter Principle for others and for yourself?

 

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