How to Parry the Peter Principle
The Peter Principle [n.]
In a hierarchy, the tendency for employees to rise to their level of incompetence.
Final placement at your level of incompetence
The first time I picked up a copy of The Peter Principle, it was to find an explanation (any explanation!) for the infuriating behavior of a coworker. The first read was like a sneeze after a long day with a high pollen count–cathartic, but snotty. The second time I read the book, it was out of a gnawing suspicion that perhaps the Peter Principle applied to myself as much as it did the cubicle next door.
Since taking a new position (as an associate consultant for The Persimmon Group), I’ve begun to ponder the Peter Principle with fresh eyes. After just a few weeks on the job, it’s clear to me that the skills that made me a great project manager are not necessarily the same skills I’ll need to become a great consultant. As the saying goes, “what got you here won’t get you there.” With any job change comes a natural period of incompetence–particularly true in this case, since I’m applying my discipline to new industries and contexts. This period of time is not only natural, but to some extent, desirable. Many career experts argue that maintaining a consistently steep learning curve is the only way to stay relevant in an uncertain economy.
But as I’ve parried with the Peter Principle, I’ve come to see that a learning curve is only useful (to you, and the organization you serve) if you develop the practices and attitudes necessary to rise and meet it:
Resist the tendency to manage what you understand at the expense of what you don’t.
So far, I’ve been working on two projects for the firm: one involving an unfamiliar industry, and another involving one with which I am infinitely familiar. The temptation is to ease my vertigo by spending a great deal of time on what I know, and avoiding what I don’t. But to succumb too much to this temptation would be devastating, both to my development and the firm.
Savor your time as a newbie.
I’m relishing my time as an associate, because I have the rare luxury of working under the close supervision of senior consultants with decades of experience and expertise…and they anticipate that I’ll have questions. When faced with a steep learning curve, it’s okay to rely (at least partially) on the mentorship of others to work towards mastery.
List what made you successful in past jobs…then think about whether those skills will hurt you going forward.
In early-career positions, your ability to take orders, follow directions, and support your boss’s views may have gotten you far. But stepping into a leadership position may require more initiative, independent thought, and willingness to challenge others. Don’t assume that the skills you’ve relied on in the past will make you successful in a new role.
Keep a research log.
The number of three-letter acronyms I’ve had to learn in the past two weeks is staggering. So I’ve started keeping a log of acronyms, terms, and concepts as I’m exposed to them. This not only helps me remember them later, but it’s also a place to write down my questions if it’s not appropriate to ask them in the moment.
Cut yourself some slack…and while you’re at it, cut some things out of your life.
By necessity, I’ve been spending massive amounts of energy getting up to speed–which means other parts of my life have had to slow down. That’s one reason you haven’t seen a blog post from me since May. I’ve also temporarily given up on housework, sweets (they zap my energy), and high heels (for obvious reasons.)