Overcoming the Peter Principle: 5 Tips for First-Time Managers
If you’ve ever immersed yourself in the wonderful world of business literature, you are likely familiar with the Peter Principle, a tongue-in-cheek but cogent treatise written in 1969 that delineated the inefficiencies inherent in organizational structures. Long story short, the Peter Principle states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
In other words, the more often you get promoted to another position, the more likely it is you’ll suck at it.
While the Peter Principle has not been proven in any scientifically verifiable way, we see anecdotal evidence of its truth everywhere. After all, have you ever secretly thought to yourself that your supervisor has no idea what she’s doing? Or have you ever wondered how the 200 hundred-year-old head of the company got to where he was, considered he falls asleep in meetings and seems otherwise completely clueless?
Now, if you’ve been working with one company for awhile and have excelled at your entry-level job, chances are that you, too, will be promoted to your own special level of incompetence at some point. After about a year working at my first job, I was promoted to a managing position in which I had to lead several people, many of whom were smarter, more talented and older than me. And I was expected to tell them what to do.
If you find yourself in a similar position, where you don’t really know what you’re doing just as all eyes are set on you, then here are a few tips based on my sometimes-bungling-but-never-boring experiences.
1. Don’t assume authority until it is conferred on you from those on your team.
This is perhaps the most important lesson any person new to managing should learn. While someone above you has deemed it appropriate to leave you in charge of a handful of people, the people you will be working with on a daily basis probably had no say in the decision.
Even if you are technically above them on the hierarchical ladder, you do not truly become a leader until your employees see you as one. It is absolutely essential to curry favor with and gain respect from your colleagues before they’ll listen to you.
2. Listen carefully and always ask questions.
I really did not know what I was doing when I first started my new position. After a few weeks, I was soon becoming the perfect Peter’s Principle poster girl.
Since I did not yet possess the management skills, I figured out early on that I’d have to learn by listening to my colleagues carefully and observing other managers who were skilled and respected. Main point: you can effectively avoid becoming a victim of the Peter Principle by making a commitment to learning from others.
3. Get to know your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses.
As this Business Week article notes, it’s important to demonstrate to those who you will lead that you’re going to take charge and make substantive changes to team operations that will make everyone’s job more efficient and enjoyable.
The best way to give this impression from the beginning is to make a genuine attempt to get to know everyone by meeting with each team member individually. Become acquainted with their personal work-related aspirations, their working styles, their weaknesses and any other information that will help you manage more effectively.
4. Always own up to mistakes.
There’s no escaping the fact that you are going to screw things up fairly often when you first start. The quickest ways to lose respect from your colleagues is to cover up your mistakes, pass the blame around, or simply just portray an image of yourself that you haven’t yet lived up to.
If you want your team to admit to their own mistakes and correct them, then you’ll have to do the same yourself.
5. Understand that you can’t make everyone happy.
While being liked is an instrumental component of succeeding as a manager, you will often be forced to make decisions that not everyone will agree with. Don’t kowtow to others’ desires just because you want to please everyone. Assess every decision you make and by all means consult others’ opinions. But in the end, once you’ve chosen a particular plan, stick to it until significant evidence demonstrates it’s not working.
Of course, even if you’re a completely incompetent manager, you’ll likely still keep your job for awhile. But eventually you’ll lose your sense of personal accomplishment, and your colleagues will begin to resent you, especially those who feel that they can do a better job than you can. So commit yourself to rising to the challenge and striking out into uncharted waters – and you’ll eventually excel in your work.
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