Flashback to the 1960’s, a decade of immense change, civil unrest and the height of the counter-culture revolution. While many famous faces and names came and went during that time there’s one in particular I’d like to draw attention to. As you probably already guessed if you’ve read any of my other posts this person was not only keenly observant but willing to share his thoughts on what he discovered despite the potential backlash. The man I’m speaking of was Canadian-born educator Laurence Peter and the gift he gave the world came in the 1969 publication of his book ‘The Peter Principle’.
For those of you unfamiliar with the work I’ll give you the cliff notes version (though I suggest you read it because a) it’s insightful and b) it’s short). Peter states that “in a [business] hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence” and that the presence of extremely skilled and productive employees “disrupts and…violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.” At the time such an attack on American business culture was likely out of the question. Dr. Laurence therefore wrote the book as more of a satire than say in Chomsky-like prose.
While it was at the time and to an extent still popular today amongst certain circles I feel it’s still not as well known as it should be. The way in which this system has continued to grow and evolve in modern times is equally impressive. In fact, an almost entirely new principled system has emerged and at the expense of using a term some other writer may already have (for which I apologize and will certainly give she or he credit in a later revision) I’m going to call it ‘The Linked in Principle.’ Yes, this is a direct shot at the website of the same name (which the author fully admits to have had an account with). The site, much like the structure of countless organizations throughout the US, is tantamount to a game of career musical chairs cleverly hidden behind the façade of being a business version of Facebook©.
I’m not going to argue the central causes of employment instability nor am I going to fault career focused individuals for watching their backs so to speak but Dr. Laurence hit the nail on the head when he revealed the “skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.” It is here we have the central thesis of the ‘linked in principle’ – that a majority of jobs are not obtained by demonstrated ability or even necessarily a perceived set – but rather through a popularity contest. The direct result of our desire to be sociable triumphing over the lesser need to be correct in the decision-making process.
The other caveat, and subsequent observation, is that because many of these individuals (often white-collar workers) tend to be placed in teams and are therefore more easily able to stake the success of an idea or program to their contributed efforts – when in fact they may have either had nothing to do with the action or the said decision may even have had serious unfortunate longer-term consequences – results in the inability of company’s to properly identify truly incompetent employees. It is to this I lead in to the last point of the principle, a slight deviation from Peter’s, which states ‘a person will rise or fall directly in proportion to their ability to network and market themselves.’ At the end of the day the structure and struggle of corporations, particularly larger ones, is a result of none of the smart kids being allowed to sit at the cool kid table.