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I learned today that the origin of a couple expressions I had bumped into many times in my career is a satirical book published in 1969 called The Peter Principle. Those axioms are:

  • People are promoted to the level of their incompetence
  • A players hire A players; B players hire C players

Neither of us are going to get any further ahead until we confront our deepest fears.

At first I chuckled at the humor of these observations that probably helped spawn characters in Dilbert and Office Space. After more consideration and reading a comprehensive book summary, I wondered “is this really an inevitable plateau we all face? What if I am already there?”

Reaching the limit of competence means being unable to perform at the scale or complexity of a new position. It’s easy to imagine (or remember) a situation like these: the diligent accountant who struggles to manage people, or the technically impeccable engineer who is paralyzed in sales conversations. Disappointingly, overcoming these plateaus is not an option offered in Peter’s book. But you can do it, and you can coach the people on your team to do it as well — as long as you are prepared to face your deepest fears.

Getting past the transition into any new job — meeting the people, learning the vocabulary, finding the coffee machine — a person will have to find a new winning strategy (see Goldsmith) in order to perform at a new level. This will require identifying and confronting your deepest fear (see Deida). In the examples above, perhaps the new accounting  manager is will alienate direct reports because she is afraid to show vulnerability and humility. And if the engineer is afraid of being labeled a “sleazy salesman,” he will never earn the trust of a customer.

So stay on the lookout for the Peter Principle in your organization, just don’t accept it as an inevitable consequence.