4 min read

The Death Zone

What happens when you climb to your level of incompetence?
The Death Zone
The Peter Principle
What do you do when you've been promoted to your level of incompetence.

Show Notes

Hey folks, welcome to The Imposters Club, the podcast for misfits in tech. You know who you are? Who am I? I'm your host, Teddy Kim. I'm a director of software engineering at a SaaS startup, here in Minneapolis. Today, let's talk about the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle goes all the way back to the 60s when a professor named Lawrence Peters said, "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who was incompetent to carry out their duties. Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence", that is crazy.

Let's see how the Peter Principle usually plays out. It's very common. An employee let's call him Niles does well at a job and is rewarded with a promotion. Those promotions keep coming until Niles is overmatched by the demands of the job. Since Niles is no longer competent to do the job he has, the promotions stop coming. Niles is stuck with responsibilities he can't handle, and the employer is stuck with an incompetent employee. It sounds crazy, but that's really how it works. There's a huge study of 214 American companies from 2005 to 2011, which proves that the best salespeople are most likely to be promoted, and most likely to perform poorly as managers.

Now, check this out. If you believe that the Peter Principle is a thing, then you must also believe that there is a higher concentration of incompetence at the upper levels of an organization. Hmm, wait for a second, doesn't that mean that you're most likely to encounter incompetence within the C suite? Oh, yeah, I went there. But seriously, think about climbing Mount Everest, if you are very, very good, you might survive to get to the top, and then you'll be on the cover of Forbes. But first, you have to climb through the so-called Death zone. That's the region of Everest from about 26,000 feet to the peak. In the death zone, oxygen levels are a third of what they are at sea level, and the barometric pressure drops climbers like flies. The death zone is littered with bodies. These are the climbers who couldn't hack it. They climbed to their level of incompetence.

So I've experienced the Peter Principle myself. Earlier in my career, I was promoted to a technical architect position, and it was a disaster. What happened was that I had the right functional competencies. I was a good coder, and really understood the stack that my company was into. So as a senior software engineer, I was effective. But a technical architect has to be able to persuade and influence without authority. And I sucked at that, nobody ever taught me how.

So my first gig as a technical architect was a disaster, I climbed my way into the death zone. Looking back, I never should have accepted a position that I didn't understand. But what can I say? I was vain. I was seduced by the title and money and that's fine. But I have to wonder, what was my management thinking? After all, the Peter Principle describes an institutional tendency to promote the wrong people. Where does this tendency come from? Why are institutions so stupid? Why would you want to work for an institution that does stupid things? Well, I have a theory. Maybe hiring is so costly and such a pain in the ass, that companies would rather promote an incompetent from within than assume the risk, hassle, and expense of finding the right person from outside the company.

As a matter of fact, a lot of companies require that a job be posted internally for a prescribed period before the job can be advertised to the public. And this creates a lot of pressure to promote an incompetent from within. When this plays out, the company will rationalize by saying things like oh, well, she can grow into the role, or at least she knows the culture and the people. Maybe what they really mean to say is better the devil you know than the devil, you don't? Anyway, in scenario number one, the company knows that an employee is incompetent, but promotes her or him anyway, because reasons.

But there is an alternative scenario, what if the company doesn't even realize that the employee is incompetent? Well, then you get into all kinds of uncomfortable implications like, if a company can't identify incompetence for promotions, then how can the company identify incompetence in its regular hiring process? If a company can't distinguish between competence and incompetence, then how did you get the job you have? Maybe you're incompetent? How would you even know? Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So what should you do? If you find yourself out of your depth in a job with demands you can't handle? Well, sometimes you need to go back to go forwards. After my disastrous performance as a technical architect, I realized I fundamentally did not possess the key competencies, I needed to be effective in that role. In order to go forward, I would need to go back. So I started to work on myself. That's how I got into coaching. I wanted to learn how to your influence without authority.

Sure, I could have faked it. I could have run a game on my employers and my team for a long time. But think about this. The higher you go in an organization, the more costly your incompetence becomes, not just for you individually, but for everyone who reports to you or depends on you in any way. If you're at a VP level, entire lines of business can wither if you're not effective, and that's a lot of jobs on the line. If you fuck up as a C-level executive, 1000s of jobs could disappear in a puff of smoke. So yeah, the view might be worth the climb, to you, but other people depend on you for their livelihood. Think about them before you venture into the death zone.

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