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Opinion: The art of creating incompetence

IAPCO president, Mathias Posch, says one-dimensional hierarchies promote people to the level of incompetence.

In 1969, NASA, the USA, and basically the entire world celebrated one of the greatest achievements of mankind — the moon landing. To back up the live telecast, NASA separately recorded the high-resolution SSTV signal. When some NASA employees looked for the tapes in the early 2000s, they were missing. Much later, it became clear that the tapes had been accidentally erased in the 1980s when deemed unnecessary. One of the greatest feats of mankind was captured on tape yet deleted by an act of utter incompetence.

Every day, we experience incompetence around us. “How do all these incompetent people get hired?” we ask ourselves. Truth be told, they probably got promoted into incompetence.

“Every employee rises to their level of incompetence.” This is called the ‘Peter Principle’, established by Canadian researcher Laurence J.Peter. He looked at how people move up the ladder based on their competence in the position they are currently holding. However, the position they get promoted into might require different abilities, possibly creating an incompetent employee. Should the employee rise to the challenge in the new position, they will get promoted again, and again, until they reach a level where they no longer excel.

As we usually do not demote people, the now-incompetent employee will struggle in the new position. In our industry, we could have a fantastic conference coordinator, who could become a super conference manager, but will utterly fail as an account director. The skills of logistical excellence that drove them up the ladder are secondary in a position requiring excellent communication and client-management skills.

Companies often create one-dimensional hierarchies with career paths for employees in which individual performance is best rewarded by putting them at a ‘higher’ level of the hierarchy. The employees themselves may not realise they are now incompetent.

Through a promotion, we create an issue rather than move our company forward in the right direction. One of the pitfalls is that, when evaluating an employee for a future position, we tend to look at current performance rather than focusing on what skills are needed for the new position.

So how can we avoid applying the Peter Principle in our organisations? Let’s look at some of the most innovative companies. Apple rotates people around different projects and departments, allowing them to show different skills and testing them in different roles before eventually promoting them. Microsoft has two streams for promotion — a technical stream and a managerial stream, allowing subject experts to move up without taking on management tasks, while fostering those with management skills.

We need to think about the culture we create in our companies — how do we reward excellent performance without moving A-players out of their positions?

Ultimately, businesses like ours come down to people — we are only as good as the people who work for and with us. Making sure that we keep employees happy is key — and the greatest happiness comes from knowing that one is doing a great job and that one’s contribution matters.

Mathias Posch is president of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO), and president of International Conference Services. IAPCO represents 130 companies comprised of more than 7,500 professional congress, meeting and event organisers from 41 countries.