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July 1, 2013 10:41 PM   Subscribe

Pushing your work beyond the upper limits of your comfort zone: what is this phenomenon called?

A pretty long time ago, I recall reading an interesting AskMe about something career-advancement related. Some commenter(s?) brought up this idea that people often reach a sweet spot in which they are doing an amount of work they can handle, and doing it well, so then it naturally leads to a promotion and increase in work and responsibilities. But then, they are pushed to or beyond the limit of their abilities, become stressed out, don't perform as well and end up feeling frustrated.

I really don't recall whether this phenomenon even had a name, though if it did it would help a lot with my Googling. In any case I have been thinking about it a lot as I'm being pushed to make decisions about my own career. I think it was implied that this was something that's been studied. Can anyone point me in the direction of more reading on this topic?
posted by Argyle_Sock_Puppet to Work & Money (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Peter Principle is that people will keep being promoted until they get to the point where they can no longer do what is required of them.
posted by aubilenon at 10:42 PM on July 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


My partner refers to being 'promoted to your level of incompetence'.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:54 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding it's called the Peter Principle. To the point I've heard people called 'the living embodiment of the Peter Principle'. In my experience, it's a very valid theory of organisational management which I've seen have genuine effects when people consider it in promotions etc, i.e. instead of automatically transitioning someone to management, it has made sense to give someone a sideways promotion into a senior technical role.

I believe IBM formalises this with a role they call 'Inventor' or similar, which allows you to continue accruing payrises relative to how long you've been with the company and the complexity of the work you do that is not directly tied to whether you manage people or not.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:12 PM on July 1, 2013


It may be called the Peter Principle but it often also points to other failures on the part of the organisation.

- Not assessing motivation and competence sufficiently. I.e. individuals may want to promote, but may not be competent. Or they may actually not want to promote and be happy, but feel they have to be seen to grasping the opportunity. The latter is especially true in up and out corporate cultures.
- Not delineating or understanding the role correctly. Organisations can be terrible at this. Someone promotes into a role they are good at and comfortable with, but the promoted employee still retains some of their old responsibilities, or they are simply given too much work, or the pressure is too intense while they are still familiarising. You see this a lot when companies downsize or restructure where magically a role three people did becomes the job of one person newly promoted into it.
- Not training properly. The Peter Principle is fine as a generalisation but obviously motivation and competence are not constants. Leadership or management competence, for example, is often a real challenge for promotees because they get all the pressure at once and may not have the tools or experience to make decisions competently. Yet. Proper training drags that lead time to operational effectiveness down. But lots of organisations do leadership training and support badly.

A friend of mine uses the rock climbing analogy. You have four anchor points - your company or work environment, your job role, your industry and your country (i.e. where you work). When you change job, ideally you want to change only one of those variables. Two at most. Three is extremely challenging and to change all four requires superhuman luck and aptitude.

In short - the idea of an individual's [innate] competence is fine in itself, but generalisations ignore a host of other important factors that ultimately also dictate whether someone can perform their role competently.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:25 AM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's the PP, all right.

I used to tell my managers that if I were incompetent at my current level, that I could be even MORE incompetent with a promotion. There's no end to the inadequacy I could bring if lifted to the highest echelons.

As this was a corporate fact (the PP, that is), I was simply doing what the organization was designed to do.

They were only mildly impressed. That's OK, though. They were incompetent and subconsciously knew the veracity of my observation.
posted by FauxScot at 6:02 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Peter Principle - yes. But there's another system you might want to look into called the Doom Loop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAkBl9vXAlU is a video by the creator of the concept; a woman named Dory Hollander also wrote a book about the topic in the 1990s.

The Doom Loop focuses on how you move through three or four quadrants as you get more experience at your job. The Doom Loop occurs when you're thoroughly competent at your job but have ceased to find it interesting or challenging.

I think the Doom Loop is a lot more worthwhile to look at than the PP when you're looking to make a change in your career. People forget that the original book was published as a joke and think that it's a rule of nature.
posted by mitschlag at 9:09 AM on August 6, 2013


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