The Peter Principle

(I can’t find a pertinent image for this week’s post.  Here is our sleeping puppy.)

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” wrote Dr. Laurence Peter in 1969, the year his “Peter Principle” went viral, 1969-style.  This recent piece from Forbes supplies information from an academic study, published 50 years after the initial assertions by Dr. Peter, which finds the basic premise of Peter’s statement to be true.  Summarizing the results of the study (run by Professors Benson, Li, and Shue), the Forbes author writes, “The data show that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers.  The Peter Principle is real.”

After just a little poking around the internet, I have found very little information about how the Peter Principle functions for people of color and women.  Tom Schuller has a book titled The Paula Principle, but the five points outlined on his website do not reassure me that the gender work on this issue is thorough or free from its own kind of bias.  Is Dr. Peter’s 1968 assertion principally about white men?  If so, we need to think more about how white men benefit from the assumption that they should be promoted, how people of color and women are placed at a disadvantage through this assumption, as they are not automatically promoted, and, perhaps most invisibly, how people of color and white men and women prop up the men who have been promoted to a position whose responsibilities they cannot handle.

In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I treat the issue of looks-like-me hiring and promotion.  A colleague once said that he wanted to make a particular hire because the candidate looked like the professors he had had in graduate school.  The more that white men believe in their own competence and privilege, the more they instill this value in colleagues—making the hire or promotion of someone like them seem “natural” or “right.”  Sometimes the person hired or promoted is entirely competent and wonderful at his job, and sometimes he’s not.  Nevertheless, the increasingly ingrained assumption that he will be contributes to gender, race, and gender-race pay gaps, which we know to be significant (cited in many posts in the Gender Shrapnel Blog; for example, here; see also this link from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  The assumption also contributes to the promotion problems of the glass ceiling (for white women) and the cement wall (Buzzanell and Lucas’ term for the lack of promotion of people, and especially women, of color).

In this poignant op-ed in the 1-11-18 issue of The New York Times, Charles Blow says of our “president”:  “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.”  Indeed, we have elected a man to the highest post in the land, a post for which he had already demonstrated a lack of interest and a severe lack of preparation and for which, since the election, he has revealed previously unimaginable inability and dysfunction.  As Charles Blow signals, “Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the ‘lowest white man,’ he is still better than Barack Obama, the ‘best colored man.’”

Indeed, even attempting to put politics aside and to focus on presidential job descriptions, much of the United States population must understand that oratory—having ideas and being able to transmit them orally in a compelling and inspiring manner—is a fundamental job requirement for the presidency. President Obama demonstrated time and again consummate oratorical skill (gained, perhaps, through profound thought, significant practice, and natural talent).  On the other hand, Trump’s communications reveal his lack of skill in this area and, I would submit, this oratorical incompetence lands our nation in significant and frequent problems.

Trump’s Peter Principle-style incompetence unfolds exponentially, as he hires men with a similar profile who are similarly unprepared to do the jobs for which they are hired and promoted. In addition, large cadres of individuals follow behind the so-called president, spending their valuable labor hours cleaning up small and large messes occasioned by colossal incompetence. The level of mismanagement boggles the mind and cements the idea of Peter Principle privilege.

This article from The New York Times (3-16-2018) reminds us that women and men already imagine men when they picture leaders, thus contributing to the power of the Peter Principle (i.e. fomenting the “natural” notion that men, especially white men, deserve to be promoted).  Our compass north is men in charge.  Even when we make workplace changes to open the pipeline, hire and promote people of color and white women, we always creep back to that compass north.  Changing perceived and real status quo remains a gigantic challenge.

The April, 2018, issue of The Atlantic features Peter Beinart’s piece titled “The Nancy Pelosi Problem.”  Beinart outlines Pelosi’s numerous successes as House Minority Leader and applauds her speaking, legislative, and fundraising abilities.  He also points out that the GOP used Pelosi’s image as a target, emphasizing time and again that women are not supposed to be in positions of power: “In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.”  Beinart asks and answers many questions about Pelosi’s supreme competence and the myriad ways the image of her and her competence are undermined: “Why so much discontent with a woman who has proved so good at her job? Maybe because many Democrats think Pelosi’s unpopularity undermines their chances of winning back the House. Why is she so unpopular? Because powerful women politicians usually are. Therein lies the tragedy. Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.”

I’ve written before about workplace “clean-up”—the often invisible ways in which lesser-paid employees (often people of color and women, as statistics repeatedly bear out) do the work of the greater-paid employees (often white men, as statistics repeatedly bear out) and make them appear more competent.  These tasks range from managing people and work responsibilities to writing speeches to running meetings.  Even as the Virginia Department of Education unveils its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” with an emphasis on job readiness, it continues to hire and promote superintendents, assistant superintendents, and middle- and high-school principals who in this part of the state are often white men, some of whom (not all!) lack real training to manage people, deliver speeches, run meetings, demand reasonable budgets, and generally do the work for which they were hired.  The more we subscribe to the Peter Principle, the more we inculcate in our young people the supposed naturalness of promoting white men and render invisible the work of people of color and white women.

Soccer great Abby Wambach touched upon many of these issues in her powerful and inspiring 2018 commencement speech at Barnard College.  We can all learn something from Wambach’s words and her real, practical advice for greater workplace fairness.

2 thoughts on “The Peter Principle”

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