In the September 5th edition of the New York Times an Op-Ed ran which introduced an update to The Peter Principle courtesy of Arthur C. Brooks. For those of you who don’t know it by its name, you’ve seen it in practice. The Peter Principle states that “Managers rise to their level of incompetence”…in other words if someone knows how to do their job and do it well they are rewarded with a promotion. That process repeats until a person gets into a position where they aren’t such high performers, and that’s where they stay…at their level of incompetence. In Rising To Your Level of Misery At Work, Brooks argues that not only does that have an effect on the people below you, but that the managers themselves are adversely effected. Stellar professors, for instance, are rewarded by being taken out of the classroom and made Deans of the Department, where they no longer teach or conduct research. Engineers who love getting their hands into projects and turned into supervisors, where they can’t get involved in projects anymore.
This has the perverse effect of making those top performers miserable, and amounts to a punishment for their good performance. People in this situation often resort to all kinds of methods to attempt to deal with this misery, but Brooks points to a 2010 study which showed that 81% of people making more than $75,000/year consumed alcohol, compared to 66% in the $30,000-$49,000 range and even less below that. This obviously isn’t an ideal answer to this problem, so why not just go back to being an engineer and give up the supervisor gig? If only it were this easy. That is seen by many to be a demotion, a going-backward if you will, which reflects negatively on you and your aptitude. While people assume that they gained their titles because of their aptitude, even if it’s more a case of the Peter Principle being enacted, resigning a high-level position to return to a lower level is seen as a sign of failure and incompetence. Not to mention the pay/benefit cuts that a decision like that often brings.
So what is the miserable manager to do? Brooks suggests a re-framing of the issue to turn it into a position of service. Citing research from The Journal of Positive Psychology which found that lawyers who served at the level of public defender were happier than their more well-paid lawyers in corporate law, Brooks advocates turning the position you have acquired away from yourself and making it in service to others. For example, you may be the manager of a small hospital, and the job might suck, but you are doing what you do to save the lives of others. In other words, it’s all about perspective. Brooks closes with the parable of the traveler on the road who runs into two stonemasons.
Traveler to the first Stonemason: What are you doing?
First Stonemason: I am making a living.
Traveler to the second Stonemason: And what are you doing?
Second Stonemason: I am building a cathedral
I think there’s something to be said for this idea. It is indisputable that the Peter Principle exists…I have seen it in action. I do believe that if you see your job as something that helps or serves others, it can help you find happiness that may be lacking in the mundane. It’s time for a moment of honesty: My job can be very exciting. Traveling to new places, meeting with our customers, getting hands-on and helping them solve issues or problems they may be having…that is fun for me. But just like any job, it isn’t always that exciting. It’s not stimulating or enthralling to add rollover after rollover and text box after text box to the third version of on online course…especially when that’s all you have done for months straight. It’s easy to get disheartened or disengaged, especially out of an attempt to save your sanity. But when I think about how I’m helping our customers use our software system more efficiently, and thus giving them higher satisfaction in their jobs, it does make the bleak periods easier. And when our customers tells us how much they love our e-learning offerings and how our courses and micro-learning offerings have helped make their jobs easier, that’s when I’ll grin from ear to ear even though I remember all of the the hours of time I invested into it, and the hours to come maintaining it in the future.
That being said, a re-framing isn’t going to solve deeper issues if you are truly disengaged and resentful of your position. If that is the case, re-framing it can help you cope until you find another position that is more in tune with your passions. I took a webinar recently that discussed factors that go into disengagement, and how to help fix it if you are suffering from it in the office. One key take away was this: If you have gotten to the point where you have a “It’s just a job” attitude, you need to take a look at what you can do to help fix that. Sometimes a re-frame or a tweak can help. Sometimes you’ll need to make a lateral move into a different area, and sometimes you may have to leave an employer altogether to find a better fit. As the presenter noted, it’s not your employers job to make you happy at work; that’s an impossible task. Only you are responsible for your own happiness.