What If They Just Don’t Ever Get It?


Happy New Year! It’s commonly a time for both reflection and projection; of both resolutions and new habits. As you get back into the swing of things, you might be asking yourself, “What’s going to be different this year?”

One reason for asking is because you are feeling stuck. Maybe the job you were hired to do isn’t the job you’re actually doing. Maybe that innovative project you’ve spent the last year building a business case for just won’t get approved. Or maybe your boss just never seems to “get it” at all.

Early last year, I worked with a company whose newly hired (at the time) director of content strategy, someone I’ve known for years, was tasked with building a centralized approach for creating, managing, and optimizing marketing content. 

She and I exchanged emails over the holiday, and I learned that she had spent the last 12 months trying to get their VP of marketing to understand the changes that would need to happen before her planned content strategy could take effect. It’s not that this VP was unwilling to change. He just doesn’t have the skill set to help deal with, or really even understand, the full complexity of the issue. It’s not an uncommon challenge; in fact, it’s (arguably) why she was hired in the first place. She is a skill player – someone who really does understand how to do the job at hand.

Her big struggle, though, is that the VP of marketing doesn’t realize that he’s out of his depth. So, his response to all 12 iterations of her plan (yes, really, it’s been 12) has been to tell her to go back and do it again because (in his words) “the case still isn’t strong enough.”

To be clear, it isn’t just my friend who has encountered this challenge when working with this VP. Other marketing practitioners view him as someone who “just doesn’t get it.” He is a classic example of the “Peter Principle” – a famous thesis (and subsequent book) stating that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence.” For our purposes, it means that skilled employees often get promoted from job to job until they reach a ceiling of incompetence – the point where they no longer have the skill set needed to perform in their current job. 

The interesting thing, to me, is that if you follow the Peter Principle to its inevitable conclusion it suggests that, over time, every job in the company will eventually be filled with someone who lacks the competence to carry out its duties.

So, wait a minute. That means that the Peter Principle could apply to me, as well. If I’m feeling stuck, could it actually be that I’ve reached the ceiling of my ability to do my job? Maybe I’m the one who truly “doesn’t get it.”

To be clear, it’s not always job skills, yours or your boss’s, that lead to hitting a ceiling.

There could be company culture challenges, the need to navigate tricky corporate politics, misalignments between new roles and responsibilities, conflicting budget priorities, or any number of non-practitioner-based causes when the Peter Principle appears to be at play.

According to the authors of the book, two of the primary signs of the Peter Principle at work are “unconscious incompetence” and “perpetual preparation.” The former is where the promoted manager substitutes their newly assigned activities with other “busy-making” tasks associated with their previous job. The latter is where the manager asks for a series of seemingly endless series of reports, analyses, and business cases before a decision can be made.

Sound familiar?

As we approach a new year, our natural tendency when feeling “stuck” in this way may be to cut and run. In fact, in my friend’s situation, her immediate reaction was to ping her network and open up a new job search. But, before we do this, let’s acknowledge where we are, and why we may have reached a ceiling. Is it the Peter Principle? Is it something else? We should acknowledge the correct cause; otherwise, we may find ourselves still bumping up against that familiar ceiling even after we switch to a new building.

Maybe this year if we truly start to feel stuck, instead of cutting and running, we should first try mapping out both our current strengths and the new ones we want to evolve – what I might call our uncommon competence. We can acknowledge where we (and others) “get it” and where we don’t. Then we can better understand where our real ceiling may be, and why it’s there.

We may still decide to leave. We may submit a 13th plan. We may find a way to go around that stuck executive. But, most importantly, we can start to build on our strengths to find a new room – where the ceilings aren’t so low.

It\’s your story. Tell it well.

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