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'Peter Principle' Refuted

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A position of powerlessness may inhibit one's ability to perform executive-level tasks such as planning, according to new research from the Netherlands.

In  the satirical 1960s musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the lead character (played by Robert Morse in the movie) ascends to the top of the corporate ladder over the course of a couple of cheerful hours. In real life, however, it’s very easy to get stuck on one of the lower or middle rungs. While that may reflect a lack of skill or ambition, researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands have found that powerlessness within an organization may, for some, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, lead author Pamela K. Smith of the Department of Social Psychology asserts that “powerless people often achieve less than powerful people because lacking power itself fundamentally alters cognitive function.” In essence, she argues that low- and mid-level workers tend to focus on details rather than the big picture, largely because the big picture is beyond their control. In addition, they “tend to be more vigilant than high-power individuals,” since their welfare depends upon reading sometimes murky signals from higher-ups.

This activity tends to impair performance of “executive functions,” which Smith defines as “the maintenance of goal-related information in working memory despite interference and distraction.”

In other words, the ability to keep your eyes on the prize.

Smith and her colleagues tested this thesis in a series of four experiments using Dutch college students. They found “low power consistently impaired executive functions,” including the all-important ability to plan ahead.

The researchers conclude “it is dangerous to use the poor performance of low-power individuals, relative to high-power individuals, as evidence that power has been allocated on the basis of merit. As our research has demonstrated, the social roles people inhabit can change their most basic cognitive processes.”

What these researchers are suggesting is sort of an opposite to the “Peter Principle,” the notion that people rise to their level of incompetence. Rather, they argue, additional authority can lead to increased levels of executive-level ability.

They conclude with a concrete suggestion: Particularly in industries such as health care, where errors can literally mean the difference between life and death, it makes sense to increase employees’ “sense of power.” If their conclusions are correct, giving these works an increased level of autonomy will improve their performance and decrease the likelihood of catastrophic errors.