Sunday, March 15, 2015

Competent, Incompetent and Super-Competent

Online dictionary defines "Competent" as having "suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience etc. for some purpose or properly qualified". It also mentions that these (skill, knowledge or experience etc.) are adequate, but not exceptional. Anyone who is not having these qualities to the desired level is "Incompetent".  By extension, anyone having these qualities in more than adequate levels or to an exceptional degree will naturally be "super-competent". In any organization, at any given time, the workforce available for its functions comprise of all these three groups; competent, incompetent and super-competent. Most of the work is carried on by the competent segment.  Of course, the incompetent also do contribute for carrying on the work and, more importantly, sharing the salary bill.

Occupational incompetencies are visible everywhere.  Despite giving clear instructions, the end result is often against what was desired.  Frustration sets in when such instances are seen.  Dr Laurence J Peter did pioneering work in the area of study of organizations and came out with his principle called "Peter's Principle".  Raymond Hull obtained the voluminous research papers from Dr peter and they together published the result of the studies in the form of a book titled "The Peter Principle".  The book which was first published in the year 1968, has sold several million copies and is popular both for its humorous view of hierarchies as well as serious research work on management and education.  All management personnel and HR practitioners would do well to read the book.  It would either improve their efficiency or relieve their boredom by enabling them to laugh at their own systems, or both.

Dr Peter through his study of many leading organizations in diverse fields such as education institutions, military, manufacturing industries and service outlets concludes that "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence".  Thus, in many organizations, most of the positions are occupied by incompetent people.  They reached these levels because they were found to be competent at the previous level.  They are now unable to move to the next level because they are found incompetent here.  There is no system of demoting them to the previous level where they can be competent; they cannot be promoted because they are now incompetent!

Dr Peter explains this catch-22 situation with many examples.  A competent teacher is approved for promotion as assistant principal.  As a teacher he was responsible for teaching students.  As an assistant principal he has to deal with adults, a group of teachers.  The skills required at this level are different than those required at the previous level.  If he is found competent at that level, he will be promoted as the Principal.  As a principal he has to deal with outsiders like school board members, parental groups and community leaders. If he fails at this level, he is incompetent as a principal and will not be considered for promotion as a superintendent, the next higher level.  He continues to work as an incompetent principal because he cannot go back as a competent teacher or assistant principal.

One may feel that there are many exceptions to this rule.  We know of many incompetent persons being promoted to the next level.  This may be for various reasons; compulsion to fill the next post from among the available pool or the danger of one not promoted quitting the organization and joining the competitor.  If the promotion was due to constraints of compulsion of selecting from the available pool, it is only a pseudo-promotion. If it is the fear of the rejected joining the competitors and the damage he can do because he knows sufficient inside information, then it is not a true promotion, but only kicking upstairs!  In either of these situations, the person is only moving from a level of incompetence to a higher level of incompetence.  There could be one more reason for such promotion of the incompetent employees.  It may be because the promoting authority has himself reached his level of incompetence and cannot decide on the competency of his subordinates!  Such promotions serve another important purpose; it keeps employee morale high.  "If X himself can be promoted, I should definitely stand a chance", feel the others and thus get motivated. 

Some of the examples given by Dr Peter are indeed revealing.  A Chairman of a company was in a dilemma while choosing his CEO when the present incumbent retired.  Two candidates were in the radar and the junior of the two was the right one to fill the position. The  Chairman was afraid that the bypassed senior may quit and join the competitor.  He was with the company long enough and his joining the competitor would certainly damage the company due his knowledge of all the trade secrets. The CEO overcame this problem by promoting both of them.  The senior was personally called and told that his knowledge and long service was invaluable to the company and it deserved to be recorded for posterity.  He was given a separate office, suitable staff and sufficient funds and advised to write the history of the company from its very beginning.  He was indeed very happy and went on with his mission.  The junior actually ran the company now.  At the end of two years, the senior came up with beautiful volumes of the history of the company. The books were released on his retirement day and they are kept in the company's main office.  Of course, nobody read them, but the CEOs purpose was served.

Another executive was confronted with a similar situation.  He promoted both the competitors.  The senior incompetent  person was made "Chief Co-ordinator" and all departments were advised to send a copy of their letters and reports to the chief co-ordinator.  The junior ran the show while the senior believed that he was doing lot of important work. He was submerged in the flood of papers and information and was very busy to create any trouble. Others did not worry about him except that one copy of all letters and reports were continued to be sent to him.

Dr Samuel Peter brings out many other wonderful management terms like Pull and Push, creative incompetence and Peter's Inversion.  Pull and Push are well-known practices to earn promotions.  Perter's Inverts are those who invert means and ends relationship. "Never stand when you can sit; never walk when you can ride; never push when you can pull", he suggests. 

Dr Peter concludes his study with a delightful warning:  Organizations expect their employees to be competent, but routinely tolerate the incompetent.  It is only the super-competent that they do not like.  It is because the super-competent are a rare breed and therefore they are a threat to hierarchy.  The golden rule is that "hierarchy should be preserved at all costs".
Peter's principle should be read by all competent and incompetent people.  It comforts the incompetent by assuring them that they are not alone, but in fact belong to the majority.  It encourages the competent that they are the ones who are running the show.  Since all of us belong to one of these two categories, it is relevant to all of us.  In case one does not know to which category he belongs, it would help him to make up his mind about his own classification.


  1. Excellent post. "Hierarchy should be preserved at all costs" sounds like something one would hear on Yes, Minister! ;)

  2. Very well articulated . It takes all kinds of people to make this world. Disparate levels of competence is visible in every workplace. Accepting the inadequacies of the less endowed and encouraging them by entrusting them with greater responsibilities is a way to motivate. Sometimes, adversities and challenging situations bring out the hidden talent. A competent leader might even be able to spot latent potential in the not-so-competent cluster and use it to his advantage in the organization. This way, he can have the cake and eat it too. !

  3. V.ery nice analysis

  4. I read this book in 70s It is very very well written by thisgentleman who exposes limitations of any person working in corporate sector and there by cautions the management to be pragmatic in promoting people just on some single performence>At the end of the day basic education matters in th process

  5. Competency and incompetency has been well analysed. A good article. Worth reading.

    K N Chidananda

  6. Great piece of information. Relevant to everyday situation faced by most of us ..

  7. Theory of relativity has been beautifully brought out. A person competent in one responsibility may become incompetent in the higher position. This is practically seen in all organisations without exception.

    Well written Keshuji.

  8. Very lucidly explained why and how organisations tolerate the incompetent.