Ever wonder why so many people seem to be incompetent in their jobs? Although it was famously explained in a humorous book titled The Peter Principle, there’s an important kernel of truth in it that we all need to chew on. The Peter Principle says that everyone in an organization gets promoted to the level of their competence.
So if you are doing a good job, you get promoted — and promoted again, until you start screwing up at which point you’ve reached your ultimate destiny in the company, your “level of incompetence”.
The joke is that work is accomplished by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. The Peter principle is no joke, however. The truth is that your strengths lift you up and your weaknesses weight you down. Think of a hot air balloon. It rises until the lift from hot air is in equilibrium with the weight of its ballast. In the same way, as you rise up in the company, your weaknesses eventually limit your ability to rise further.
Understanding how your strengths and weaknesses shape your career will help you work smarter and find the right intersection where your needs meet those of the company and your boss. Here are some of subtleties to consider:
- Your strengths and weaknesses are all relative to a specific environment. Your strength in one situation may be a weakness in another. In my company, our culture places a great deal of emphasis on performance, but not ‘at any cost’ because we value integrity and teamwork also. As a result, focusing on results at any cost would be perceived as a weakness in my company, but could still be a strength in another organization.
- Your strengths and weaknesses are also relative to the position you hold. If you like to spend your day talking to other people, that would be a strength in our sales team but a weakness for a computer programmer.
- As you rise up, your personality has a greater impact on the performance and motivation of the people around you. Senior managers typically reach the stall-point in their careers because of limiting personality traits. More bluntly, their personality flaws and undesirable behavior eventually hold them back.
What kind of traits and behaviors would prevent you from becoming a CEO? Some are the same issues we covered in other lessons – too arrogant, doesn’t listen, too confrontational, not flexible enough, too much of a risk-taker, too controlling, and dislikes communicating.
It’s very common for successful individuals to have both strong strengths and strong weaknesses - they often go together. It’s also true that you can reach the stall-point in your career when you lack critical functional experience, in sales or engineering, for example.
This is because many successful people are driven by some type of trauma from their childhood. As a result, they are motivated by fear, need to be in control or desire for recognition and status. This can be as simple as someone driven to avoid the conditions they experienced as a child.
- First, if your strengths flow from a reaction to childhood trauma, you need to know that your strengths taken too far become weaknesses – weaknesses that you will have difficulty seeing.
- Second, if you are stalled because of a strong weakness, improving your strengths will accomplish little.
- Third, your boss is unlikely to want to talk about these type of weaknesses with you. Your commitment to seeing your weaknesses and reducing them is critical to your advancement.
For further reading, Driving Excellence has very relevant chapters titled ‘The Weakness Principle’ and ‘The Human Change Process.’