Pathways for Peter

Aspa Paltoglou (Manchester Metropolitan University) listens to The Peter Principle, an episode of Laws That Aren’t Laws, presented by Robin Ince on BBC Radio 4.

Most of us spend a large part of our life working, so it’s important to be in a job that is suited to our capabilities. The Peter Principle, discussed by Robin Ince and guests on BBC Radio 4, often puts a spanner in the works. 

The principle refers to the observation that employees that are successful in their job, e.g. in engineering, tend to be promoted to positions that are much less competent in, and stay there. Typically these are managerial positions. How can we eliminate this worrying phenomenon and ensure that employees work in suitable placements and are managed by effective managers?    

One of the solutions discussed in the program was to avoid promoting employees that are perfectly competent in their current job. Listening to Robin Ince it’s thankfully clear he’s not reached his level of incompetence; perhaps he’ll soon be promoted to the position of the BBC director. For now, his job appears to be high in autonomy – which encourages flow, in turn increasing creativity, productivity and well-being (according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) – and in relatedness, in that Ince makes programmes and live shows on issues that are clearly of interest to him. According to Self-Determination Theory, high competence, autonomy and relatedness lead to high intrinsic motivation. Management that bears this in mind could nurture employees less inclined to want to go up the hierarchy simply for progression’s sake.  

In some instances, though, staying in the same job for a long time can become too repetitive. And in a culture where progression at work is valued, not being promoted can lead to disillusionment. Being promoted according to the skills needed for the target job, rather than according to the success in the previous job, has been suggested as a solution; this could require a change in employees’ attitudes to be effective.  

The other solution discussed in the programme was promoting individuals randomly. However, that could still lead to employee disillusionment and people parachuted into a job that they don’t have the skills, interest or aptitude for. 

Perhaps the Peter Principle could be avoided if there were several promotion pathways, so that the top of the hierarchy had varied positions rather than just management. Employees could be honing their skill to an increasingly higher level over the years and enjoying an optimal level of competency at work at every level. I remember when I found out that there were more than one promotion pathways at work. I felt that the new-found pathway was more suitable for me, which made me feel more motivated and positive about my work and my future in my workplace.  

That said, now that I have successfully considered this conundrum for The Psychologist, I think it is only fair that I should be promoted to Managing Editor – and hopefully get a bigger office! [Editor’s note: Still working from a dining table I’m afraid…]

- Find more Robin Ince in our archive

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