Tiffany Chang

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The Peter Principle

Posted by Tiffany Chang on April 1, 2021 at 8:30 AM

How many times have you heard that despite a musician's exceptional artistry, they are just lousy leaders and not good at managing a group of people or at dealing with administrative tasks?

 

This could naturally refer to a conductor - but it could also refer to a section leader or a department chair. You love their music making, but just can't stand it when you have to be in a rehearsal or meeting with them because of their incompetence as a leader. 


One way to explore this phenomenon is via "The Peter Principle" presented by Laurence J. Peter in 1969, actually originally a satire but has become the basis of much discussion and study throughout the decades.

 

The Peter Principle observes that, in a hierarchy, people who do a good job get promoted to the next level. And if they perform well there, they are rewarded with another promotion. This process continues until they reach a level where they can no longer do well, usually because the new position requires different skills. They now become incompetent despite their previous competence. And because they don't do well, they don't continue to get promoted and are stuck at that level--incompetent, stressed, and making others stressed. Overtime, Peter suggests that one could expect the majority of the people in the hierarchy to become incompetent at their "level of incompetence."

 

(Interestingly, a Harvard Business Review follow up article called “A Postscript to the Peter Principle,” in 1973 suggests that women and minorities were usually exempt from this trap because they are simply not getting promoted despite their demonstrated competence. I couldn't find this article available to view online.)

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Of course, The Peter Principle doesn't superimpose perfectly onto the musical world. A violist promoted to principal viola is not really doing an entirely different job. But let's examine this more deeply:  


      • A section leader usually arrives at their role due to their incredible technical and musical skills, even though the new position requires an additional skill of leadership to excel. 

 

      • A department chair could arrive at their role due to seniority, required service (for their position), or a direct assignment from above.

 

      • In the case of an instrumentalist-turned-conductor, there is sometimes a lack of specific training that would make them more effective as conductors. 


Often, we assume that if people are excellent musicians, they'll be fine at the other things. We don't actively assess the necessary new skills as part of the audition or promotion process. And even if we think we do, often we go with our gut feeling. But what if our gut feeling is wrong or biased? Plus, the broad leadership skills are not taught in music school, so how could we expect them to have it? And how could we expect ourselves to know what we should be looking for? 

 

Therefore, when musicians are promoted to leadership positions, they are most of the time incompetent at leadership and must figure it out on the job. And sometimes they never figure it out.

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While The Peter Principle is not directly applicable to the music industry, it can provide insight into what is missing in our educational values, training programs, and hiring processes - especially when we expect the majority of musicians to go into hierarchical workplaces.


Here are 5 potential solutions to combat The Peter Principle for our industry: 

 

      • Provide special training for those we put in leadership positions. This training should be part of a professional development program that is provided by the organization. By doing so, the institution is also demonstrating a commitment to their people's growth and success - instead of throwing them in the fire. 

 

      • Evaluate their potential future performance and competence level in the new position. What would they need to do? Do they already show competence in those areas? If not, do we see potential in their development toward mastering those skills? What could we provide in order to help them succeed?

 

      • Ensure that the hiring process includes assessment of non-artistic skills - we can achieve this via redesigning how we screen resumes and how we use probing questions in interviews and reference checks.

 

      • Be quick and honest in demoting people if they are unable to learn the appropriate skills. Sometimes, people just don't work out for many reasons. And we don't want to continue putting them in a position where they can't succeed themselves nor help others succeed.

 

      • Start valuing leadership skills as part of the music school curriculum. This levels the playing field for everyone to be successful when they are promoted to leadership roles.


Peter in The Peter Principle urges readers to “look around you where you work, and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence. You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.”

 

At this point, I'm sure you realize that you probably have encountered signs of The Peter Principle sometime in your life.


It's worth asking the question: Are we choosing to do anything about their incompetence? If not, what could we do about it?

 

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