If you’ve never heard of the Peter Principle, it’s one of the simplest and most pervasive concepts in the workforce.
The Peter Principle offers that people are hired based not on what they could do, but on what they have done. The focus is on the past, not the future.
Flipping that first premise around, and we get the real doozy of the Principle: everyone can be promoted to their level of incompetence.
Beware of rewards
In other words, just because you’re good at one job, it doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed in a promotion. Or another promotion.
Let’s take the example of a factory line worker. He moves the fastest and produces the fewest scrap. So he gets promoted to senior assembler. He continues to excel, so he gets promoted to line supervisor. The company can’t believe what a worker they have on their hands, so they promote him again to manager, complete with a nice desk job in a clean office, far from the dirty, noisy assembly line.
None of the skills that made him successful can be used in his new job. He’s essentially learning a brand new job from scratch, only with a higher profile and heightened expectations.
Depending on the individual, he might figure it out in time – or, he’s just been promoted to his level of incompetence.
How high is your ceiling?
The line worker example is the most straightforward one to understand, but we see it everywhere. A partner at an accounting firm has no absolutely no daily connection with his accounting training – his full-time job is sales, promotion, and staff motivation.
Every senior manager you’ve ever worked with is removed from the “doing.” Their full-time job is setting direction, and making sure everyone underneath them delivers on time.
I’m sure many of the managers you’ve met are highly successful at their jobs, and so it’s not enough to say that once you’ve been promoted, you’ve reached your level of incompetence.
Some people’s ceilings might be the President of the Universe, while others might be night shift manager at Dairy Queen. Everyone is different, and potential isn’t straightforward.
Which leads to my main point.
You might ask why a Career Nomad would spend even a second discussing the Peter Principle.
Aren’t I the one who’s been telling you that you should always seek new experiences? That you can learn anything? That being a master of pulling a whole bunch of skill sets together is a huge skill unto itself?
You’ll never hear me saying that you should be afraid of hitting your ceiling! You should keep learning, keep trying, keep seeking newer and better jobs until you feel you’ve run the whole gamut (hint: you could probably spend your life trying).
The point in embracing the Peter Principle is not in accepting limitations, but in consciously pushing those limitations as far down the road as possible.
Kick it down the road
Yes, you have a ceiling, and yes: someday you might hit it.
But why tomorrow? Why in the next job you take?
The Peter Principle is not some absolute, mathematically precise line which will border your ambition forever. It is a theoretical limit that presumes the status quo.
So destroy the status quo.
Challenge yourself. Take on new projects. Solicit feedback and learn every task you can find.
Not everyone has the same discipline, the same work ethic, the same ability to put what you learn into action.
If you work hard enough at it, you can push that “level of incompetence” so far that you retire miles away from even getting close.
It’s only a ceiling if you decide you live in a bungalow.
How far can you push it?
Have you ever felt squeezed in by the learning demands of a new job? How did you conquer it? Tell us in the comments!