Steve Carell as Michael Scott on 'The Office', victim of the Peter Principle

Michael Scott and The Peter Principle

Steve Carell as Michael Scott on 'The Office', victim of the Peter Principle

Michael Scott, manager in “The Office” and victim of the Peter Principle

The “Peter Principle” is the idea that when promotions are made on the basis of prior performance, everyone will eventually be promoted to their own level of incompetence.  It still has resonance some 40 years after is was first proposed, and it has an enormous impact on productivity, engagement, and retention in organisations today.

Perhaps one of the most recent high-profile embodiments of the Peter Principle is Michael Scott from the TV Comedy “The Office”.  A great salesman before he was promoted to Regional Manager, Scott can’t seem to cut it in a management position.  He is allergic to conflict, provides cliches in place of leadership, and haplessly implements one half-baked strategy after another – all to hilarious effect.  We laugh along because most of us, at some point in our careers, have known a manager like Michael.

The skills to excel in a technical area are not the same as the skills to manage or lead a workforce.  Many organisations fail to recognise this, or are unable to support employees transitioning into a management role.

Project Oxygen was Google’s quest to use Data Analytics to find a better manager, based on the premise that people leave companies for three main reasons:

1. They don’t feel a connection to the mission of the company, or have a sense that their work matters;

2. They don’t really like or respect their co-workers; and/or

3. They have a terrible boss.

Given the last of these points is arguably the easiest to control, Google sought to find out what actually makes a good manager, and found that  it comes down to these attributes and behaviors, in order of importance:

1. Being a good coach;

2. Empowering their team and not micromanaging;

3. Expressing interest in team members’ success and personal well-being;

4. Being productive and results-oriented;

5. Being a good communicator and listening to their team;

6. Helping their employees with career development;

7. Having a clear vision and strategy for the team; and

8. Having key technical skills so they can help advise the team.

What’s telling about this list that the least important trait of the manager is usually the main reason why people are promoted to technical management roles in the first place.  Without coaching or transition support into management roles, it’s no wonder the Peter Principle is still alive and well today.

Leadership positions (and done well, a management position is one of those) can have a disproportionate impact on the ability of the organization to execute strategy, but what makes a great technician is not what makes a great leader.  How do you support people transitioning to leadership positions in your organisation?

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