This column will change your life: incompentence in the workplace

Forty years ago this year, a crotchety ex-schoolteacher named Laurence Peter published The Peter Principle, answering a question that millions, surely, had asked: why does the world contain so many people who are so strikingly useless at their jobs? Droll curmudgeon though he was, Peter's now-famous principle identified a real problem: in hierarchical organisations, people tend to rise to their "level of incompetence". Being good at your job gets you promoted, and so on, ever upwards, until your performance isn't good enough to warrant advancement. Seen this way, it's no accident that companies and governments are filled with bunglers - they're giant machines for sorting people into precisely the jobs they can't do. The cartoonist Scott Adams offers the only marginally less depressing Dilbert Principle: modern corporations systematically promote their least talented staff to the ranks of management where, since managers don't really do anything, they're mainly harmless.

It's easy to see why you might accept a job despite knowing it exceeded your capacities: better pay, prestige, unwillingness to admit your limits. But the problem of incompetence goes deeper. One of the hallmarks of being terrible at something, it turns out, is not realising how terrible you are.

The key study here is called Unskilled And Unaware Of It, and assuming that the Cornell psychologists who conducted it weren't themselves unsuspectingly incompetent, its conclusions are unsettling. "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt," Bertrand Russell wrote. The Cornell study concurs: those who scored worst in various tests requiring "knowledge, wisdom or savvy" were those who most overestimated their performance; top achievers tended to underestimate. A special version of this problem preoccupies the business scholar Michael Gerber, whose book The E-Myth Revisited ("e" stands for "entrepreneur") makes a devastatingly simple case for why most small businesses fail. People assume that having a skill - baking, say - means they'll be skilled at running a business doing that thing - opening a bakery. But there's no necessary connection; indeed, a keen baker is likely to find tasks such as book-keeping so aggravating, because they get in the way of baking, that he'll do them especially badly.

Even if you're fortunate enough to recognise your weaknesses, you may not respond wisely. According to Gallup research compiled by the marketing expert Marcus Buckingham, most people try to "plug" their weaknesses, while the really successful focus on exploiting strengths. The weakness-plugger is the employee who goes on courses to become less awful at public speaking, when she'd be better off in a job that calls on her written skills. But you'll rarely improve a weakness beyond mediocrity, argues Buckingham, not least because it's hard to invest sustained energy in something you don't enjoy. If you truly know what you're bad at, you're already ahead of the pack. Don't throw that away by wasting your time getting slightly less bad.

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