The rising tide of incompetence

Weak links are present in almost every division, department or office. There will always be somebody who holds back the rest of the group. It's an undeniable fact: not everyone is up to the job.

by The Conference Board

It was 36 years ago that Laurence J Peter introduced the Peter Principle: "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." That is, workers keep getting promoted until their new job demands more than they can give, and then they stay in that job for most of their careers.

So far, so familiar. But according to an article in this month's The Conference Board Review, the situation is getting worse: today's increasingly complex working world, combined with technological advancements that require each worker to master a wide range of skills, guarantees that more and more of us are incapable of performing all parts of our job well.

"What do we mean when we say somebody is incompetent?" asks Matthew Budman, managing editor of The Conference Board Review. "One definition: an incompetent is someone who is defined by his mistakes. Everyone makes the occasional error or bad decision or lapse in judgment. Most of them go unnoticed. But at some point, failure becomes the norm and even that person's defining characteristic."

We are almost certainly more incompetent than previous generations, Budman argues. But this is not because we are fundamentally less capable than our parents or grandparents. "More is demanded of white-collar workers every day - less in terms of the sheer amount of work than of different types of work. The working world is increasingly complex, and many of us regularly take on more responsibility for more things."

And it isn't just the workplace that creates incompetence - according to the Peter Principle, the hierarchy itself, through promotions, transforms capable workers into shaky bosses. "Incompetence begets incompetence," says Budman. "Managers with poor judgment hand out assignments to the wrong people, delegate tasks to those who can't handle them, and force others out of their zones of responsibility."

The problem is that too many managers end up in the wrong positions, Budman argues. To solve this, companies must do a better job at ensuring that people end up in the positions for which they're best suited. This means a broad reconsideration of traditional companies' hierarchical, promotion-based culture, according to Budman.

"You don't have to scrap your org chart…just start considering how to separate promotions from rewards for high performance, how to alter the pattern of good people inexorably rising until they're no longer good people."

The Conference Board Review, October 2006
Review by Nick Loney

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