Peter’s paradox: Do difficult things, not the easy way

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A COUPLE married for more than 30 years was asked: “What’s the secret for staying married for such a long time?” The husband answered: “That’s simple. When one of us talks, the other one doesn’t listen.” Some of us may joke for a while that the “hearing but not listening” approach is the best way to preserve relationship. Perhaps there’s some truth to it given how our world seems to live in a paradox.

Step back to the year 1969 when “The Peter Principle” (every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence) was introduced by Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull. There were no Facebook, YouTube and Google. People largely communicated by rotary-dial telephone, snail mail and telegraph, if not smoke signals. But still they care to listen to one another until each one reaches to his own level of incompetence. Think about what that means.

Organizations are successful if they have a well-oiled communication process run by professional managers Let me emphasize the word “professional.” You know what I mean: Information is giving out, while communication is getting through. That means each of us in management needs to think not just about how we do today’s job better, but about how we change and influence people through communication.

Never mind my American style of direct-to-the-point of talking to people as there’s no such thing as gray. It’s either black or white. That’s why you can always hear me asking questions that boil down to this: “Do you want to hear a reassuring lie or an inconvenient truth?” Even in the absence of a clear answer, I will proceed giving my unsolicited views on anything, even if my listeners (or readers) have the advantage of pretending they don’t hear or read it.

They know when I should stop, but more than anything they know that I seldom stop even if they tell me: “Stop asking too many questions! Don’t you know that curiosity can kill a cat?”

My answer to that is clear and succinct: “It depends on what the cat wants to know.”

That brings us to the Peter’s Paradox—or why people in an organizational hierarchy do not really object to the incompetence of their colleagues. They don’t object because they don’t want to rock a sinking boat. And as long as the deadwoods don’t receive the same pay increase and they don’t take up the slack for them, except that this is a selfish approach.

We have seen the Peter’s Paradox becomes the rule when everyone appears to do it. You don’t have to look far and beyond your current situation. Look at your own local politician and you’ll know why.

But sadly, why do people refuse to get actively involved in the problems of their community or organization?

I can’t offer much explanation except to speculate. Maybe people who refuse to get involved are like the two shipwrecked men in a lifeboat. From their end of the boat, the pair watched as those at the other end bailed frantically to keep the boat afloat.

One said to the other: “Thank heaven, the hole is not on my end of the boat.”

That’s right. I can always see people in that self-centered situation. They know they are in extremely deep water, completely out of sight of civilization, probably miles off course, possibly with icebergs drifting our way, and some people decide to look for other things to do as if they don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

Now I know. Today, if you’re a management consultant donating your services for free to help nonprofit organizations, you have to write more briefs than a lawyer, deliver more promises than a politician, conduct more house calls than a doctor, fix more things than a plumber, and at the same time—know how to run a home for the aged.

But of course, I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m enjoying every difficult step of the way especially today when we commemorate John F. Kennedy’s 50th death anniversary. Almost always, we are inspired by JFK when he said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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  1. When I was young I used to believe this “Peter Principle” and look down upon the old guys in or organization who seem to doing “less” than my young generation. And I wondered why we have not got riiden the org of this “deawood”. Only decades later that I have honestly found the answer – “People Get Old”.