Super-competence

Here’s another gem from The Peter Principle. The book coins the term “hierarchical exfoliation” to describe how organizations rid themselves of both the least competent and the most competent people.

… in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.

Ordinary incompetence, as we have seen, is no cause for dismissal: it is simply a bar to promotion. Super-competence often leads to dismissal, because it disrupts the hierarchy

Emphasis in the original.

Related post: Intellectual traffic jam

9 thoughts on “Super-competence

  1. I have not seen any examples of precisely this, though of course it could happen.

    I have seen numerous examples of “overfocussed competence” (which might be called “overstuffed competence” by some). Here, a person will focus on one issue, and come up with a wonderful solution to it, while missing the bigger problems that it is a part of.

    Here’s a couple cases with strawman examples:

    The bigger problems might simply be issues having to do with priorities (yes, you have a wonderful solution for getting rid of the bathwater, but we really do want the baby to remain healthy).

    The bigger problems might be people issues. (Yes, it’s good to know that our current $200 investment in routers will not be adequate for the proposed contract. However, shouting “you’re wrong, you’re wrong” frightened off the customer so now we do not have anyone interested in that contract. But, we can buy stuff, you know.)

    I realize, of course, that real examples of this will not be as clear cut as my strawmen. And, I am sure many examples exist where I would not agree with the priorities and/or the people issues.

    But my point is that there’s a sort of fuzzy continuum here, and that it’s not all black and white.

  2. Would be interesting to understand whether the effect is inevitable. Perhaps there are examples of hierarchically structured organizations that understand that the structure was selected as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

  3. Surely this is a positive side effect, no? More economic value is likely to be created as a result of the super-competent being freed from the hierarchy, even if it is against their will.

  4. A good example is GE. When Jack Welsh was leaving he had a competition between 3 senior execs. Only one was to be chosen the other 2 had to leave (he didn’t want any sort of power struggles). I seem to recall that both of the others ended up as CEOs at other large firms.

    It was just a summer job but extrapolating: I had a job where I could easily do 2-3x the work of people that were doing it for 15+ years. That created a social problem since my coworkers didn’t want to look bad, or have the boss give more work to them since I was proving that it could be done. So if I was to stay and get promoted I’d have had serious problems with my staff which would be part of the selection criteria. I guess I was too good to get promoted (at albeit a simple factory job).

  5. This leads to one of Silicon Valley’s big advantages, the ability to tolerate unusually quirky but highly-talented individuals. At Caltech, we used to call them ‘3-sigmas’, because they were well off the normal distribution curve, regarding intelligence (to the right) and social & personal habits (to the left).

    It’s a recurring theme in the book Bill & Dave, which is a pretty fascinating history, both of Valley entrepreneurship and the development of EE. Fortunately, with all the interest in autism-spectrum disorders, and shows like The Big Bang Theory, it’s gradually becoming better understood that a lot of misfits do have valuable abilities. But we still have a long way to go in designing organizations where they’ll fit in.

  6. I see the disruption to the hierarchy. Some parts of our organization (big aerospace company) consider managers to be technical experts. They may have been but few maintain the level that got them promoted. And conflicts happen when they are contradicted by an engineer with half their total experience but twice their technical expertise. Sometimes it’s not pretty.

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