Dr. Laurence Peter understood the upside and the downside of bureaucracy better than most. Fifty years ago, he wrote, ‘In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence…’

He put forth that in time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties. The Peter Principle (as it came to be known) says that if you do a respectable job, you get promoted until you reach a job where you’re incompetent. When that happens, you’ll stay in that job until sooner or later, the organization is filled with more incompetent people than not.

Regarding organizational structure and function, I’ve long said that organizations with too much bureaucracy provide a safe place for under-performers to hide out, while at the same time providing an upside that says if you do a respectable job, you’ll get chosen and promoted. In short, keep your head down, do what you’re told and you’ll generally win.

We don’t live in that world anymore because we can’t afford it. The financial collapse of 2008 changed that forever, which begs the question, ‘What is the upside in the new organization?’

The upside is that you alone get to decide if you want to be promoted, have more influence, more leverage and more responsibility. If so, you’ll have to confront the scary part of that upside, which is dealing with the fear that you’ll be exposed for your incompetence. Fearful of exposure, most will default to the Peter Principle and hide out in the bureaucracy. Instead of choosing themselves, they’ll wait to be chosen.

Personally, I did that for way too much of my former career. I’ve since learned that if I bet on myself instead of letting someone else make me feel incompetent, that someone always ends up carrying my briefcase.

Truth Be Told, choose the upside.

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