Team Building & Leadership expert Mike Cardus

The Peter Principle, formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.”

This is seen often. For example, an individual who has specialized talent in one area and produces great work gets promoted. This promotion has no or minimal training, skill development, mentoring, coaching, etc. The person at this level fails miserably because of the lack of cognitive ability, requisite tasks, and ability to operate at a managerial level. This failure has detrimental effects on the organization and the staff that this person now manages. So this employee has reached their level of incompetence.

I want to theorize a Reverse Peter Principle (kind of) regarding task delegation of managerial leadership.

This Reverse Peter Principle states that “within a hierarchy tasks tend to be delegated until they have descended to the employees level of incompetence”.

Meaning that managers who delegate tasks that should be completed pass the task along the hierarchy until they cannot complete it in the last pass off of the delegation. They are causing important goals (aligned with the tasks) to be completed poorly, if at all. Then the management scapegoats the employee because it was delegated to them.

The complexity of the task must fit the level of work. There is a great tendency to delegate tasks to too low a level, for example, Marketing development, which requires a level of thinking, ability, and accessibility to resources that only the Marketing VP has. If the Marketing VP were to delegate this task to the Marketing Manager – the task would be too complex. The manager does not have access to the power system, necessary authority, and connections to collaborate with other departments for successful completion.

Suppose these more complex problems are assigned even one level of the hierarchy too low. In that case, the consequences are ones that we have all seen and are highly predictable: Budgets are overspent, completion time targets need to be continually extended, and should the project be completed, the quality and results are sub-standard.

Ensuring that the complexity of tasks is appropriate when delegated to staff is essential. All tasks should be appropriate in complexity, resources, and skills for the person delegated. People want to be challenged to their full capacity, and if the Managerial Leader knows the people, this can be accomplished.

When delegating tasks, consider the task assignee’s background. The task should be adjusted to take into account: the person’s time in the position (role); their familiarity with the task; the requisite knowledge and skill necessary for successful completion; the maturity of their relationship with their manager; and whether or not they value to the assigned task.

It is essential to delegate tasks properly to avoid the Reverse Peter Principle. When delegating tasks, managers must make clear the what-by-when (Quality:Quantity:Time Frame). In addition, they must ensure that staff understands the resources and approved methods, policies & procedures to utilize while completing the task. While a manager can assume that any delegated task will be completed on time and to standard unless they are notified to the contrary, it is up to the manager to ensure that the staff understand and are capable of completing the task in the first place.