Random Promotions

Every year, scientists gather in Boston to poke fun at themselves at a ceremony where they award the Ig Nobel Prizes. These prizes go to researchers who have conducted unusual research that often provokes chuckles when described. For instance: remote sampling of whale snot, reducing asthma symptoms with a roller coaster and proving that wearing socks on top of boots improves traction on icy surfaces. The Ig Nobel Prize is given out by a group called “Improbable Research”, which celebrates “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology. ”

While it may be hard to see how most of these studies relate to leadership training, there are a couple of them that may be connected. One study found that swearing does reduce pain. The experimenters had subjects put their hands in icy water and were told to repeat an innocuous phrase or a swear word. Those who were told to swear reported significantly less pain. Who knows? Maybe this could relate to an improved conflict resolution model! But, the one that really captured my interest was the Management Award. In this study, the authors concluded that promoting people at random produced the most efficient organization.

You may remember “The Peter Principle” that asserted that by promoting the organization’s best performers, each person eventually reaches a level at which he or she cannot perform the required tasks and is no longer competent. If true, that would mean incompetence would eventually spread throughout the organization. The Ig Nobel Prize study, “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study,” by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofalo, built on this idea in a simulated organization and tested several methods of countering the phenomenon. They conclude that if the Peter Principle is correct, “…we find, counter intuitively, that in order to avoid such an effect the best ways for improving the efficiency of a given organization are either to promote each time an agent at random or to promote randomly the best and the worst members in terms of competence.”

So, if you have ever been passed over for a promotion that you believe you deserved, you may think that promotions are indeed handed out randomly. But, blatant cronyism and nepotism aside, most organizations use some form of a  competence-based system for determining promotions. This is what Pluchino, et. al. call the common sense approach.

There are, of course, a number of assumptions in this study that limit its usefulness in real organizations. The most important being that the required skills at each level of the organization are completely independent. That is, the skills needed at the next level are entirely different than the skills that made you successful at your current level. It is highly unlikely that such a situation would exist in a real organization. In fact, the study actually reinforces the need to do a really good job of assessing what skills are required for each open position.

employee training relationship skills leadership active listeningAs an employee moves up the hierarchy in the organization, it is probable that the change in skill requirement shifts from technical skills to relationship skills; the kind taught in many leadership training classes. In fact, that change may be quite pronounced. I often encounter managers who have been promoted because of their technical abilities but unable to handle the leadership responsibilities of a new, higher level role.

We have all observed this. A talented engineer struggles as a new manager. A skilled artist is terrified to confront poor performance when she becomes a supervisor. A brilliant scientist fails as a team leader. Few would argue that this is not a question of a poor match between skills and requirements. It would be a rare organization in which the higher-level management positions did not demand far more skill in developing and maintaining relationships than lower level jobs. Since few high schools or university level business schools stress the development of these relationship-building skills, it is not surprising that the Peter Principle is still alive and well. The good news is that these skills can be learned. The evidence suggests that effective listening, constructive confrontation, giving and receiving clear feedback, and resolving conflicts do much to help leaders manage the relationships within and among work groups and teams.

But, these skills take longer to learn well than many of the technical skills. A successful promotion strategy must include a commitment to teach these skills well and very early in the careers of team members. Leadership training that teaches these skills should be offered often and broadly within the organization. As employees’ relationship skills improve, the chances of promoting someone into a higher level management position where they can be successful increases considerably.

So, a successful promotion practice includes careful examination of the skill requirements of each open position, an accurate way of assessing the human relationship skills of each candidate, and an early and thorough program of leadership training within the organization. Or, you could just flip a coin.

Sutton, Robert I. “If The Peter Principle Is Right, We Should Randomly Promote People: Ig Nobel Prize Winning Research.” Psychology Today in Work Matters: Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life. October 5, 2010

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