Bad behavior comes loaded with all kinds of cool features. It’s a luxury item you probably can’t afford.
Take this boss of yours, for starters.
He’s resigning after years of terrible leadership — but keeping his salary, which sextuples what you make. He plans to retire next year, a multi-millionaire with a failed institution in his wake.
The world will never stop cranking out buffoons.
Charles Darwin said it best:
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
— The Descent of Man
Better get used to that, or you’ll die from petition fever. Don’t get too used to it, though. Not so used to it you turn into a sycophant. Just enough that it stops paralyzing you with anger.
You’re angry because you don’t understand how the forces of stupid keep winding up in positions of authority. If nothing else, understanding the laws of incompetence will calm you down a little.
The cream rises until it sours
Maybe you’ve wondered why your boss sucks so much. Not only that, but so does his boss, and his boss, all the way up. A Canadian psychologist named Laurence Peter figured it out back in 1968.
He published his theory in The Peter Principle. Here’s what the book can tell you about incompetence:
- Most people never stop gunning for promotions.
- Hierarchies encourage this behavior.
- Almost everyone gets promoted to a job they’re not qualified for.
- Once they get there, they stop learning new skills.
- All they have to do is show up and smile.
- It’s really hard to fire someone for generic incompetence.
- They have to screw up really bad.
- By then, it’s usually too late.
- They’re not completely incompetent, just unqualified for the position they were promoted to.
You know someone who fits the peter principle. Maybe three or four of them. Karen winds up head of HR because she’s a people person — not because she knows anything about benefits. Doug becomes dean of a college; he’s really nice, and knows how to give a great speech. He doesn’t understand statistics or budgets, though.
Unchecked, the peter principle spreads like a virus, infecting the whole place. It turns every leadership position upside down by sticking someone in there who has no idea what they’re doing.
Watch out for percussive sublimation
Just wait, it gets worse. Sometimes an incompetent person gets promoted to an even higher position — just so they do less damage. This has happened at my job so many times, I’ve lost count.
Lawrence Peter came up with a term for this one, too. Percussive sublimation, which he defines as a “pseudo-promotion.” He explains:
The main function of a pseudo-promotion is to deceive people outside the hierarchy.
It accomplishes a few key things:
- Covers up the mistake of promoting a bad egg.
- Cushions morale and dangles a little carrot in front of everyone who thinks, “If that guy got a promotion, so can I…”
- Protects the dominance structure. Firing a guy in a suit, who arrived with such fanfare, makes everyone look really bad.
Now you understand why a different boss always tries to chew you out for “not answering my emails.” Except you do. And you have to forward your original replies to them, and then listen to some fake apology — followed by a lazy excuse you’re expected to swallow.
Now you understand why you submit a form three or four times before it’s finally rejected, with no explanation.
Now you understand why that guy makes $90K a year, but all of his staff and responsibilities somehow vanished. He literally comes into the office everyday and plays computer games.
Hierarchies can’t stand super-competence
Ever feel like you got fired, or demoted, for being too good at your job? It’s a thing. Specifically, you got hierarchically exfoliated.
Sounds very unpleasant.
Someone who does too well tends to upset the status quo. It could make other people look bad. It could force them to work harder. Rethink what the entire institution is capable of. Reflect on priorities. None of that stuff makes incompetent people very happy.
Super-competence often leads to dismissal, because it disrupts the hierarchy.
— Laurence Peter
Now you understand why one of your bosses cut you off in the middle of your workshop presentation — the one he invited you to give. He gave you 30 minutes, but stopped you after 10. Your well-researched talk made his puppy slides and toy activity look amateurish.
Now you understand why another one of your bosses didn’t like it when you sent a proposal to his boss. His boss loved your ideas, and that seemed to anger all the lower-level bosses.
Now you understand why yet another boss stops people at commencement ceremonies and inspects their regalia — including their medals. He’s sizing them up. He’s sized you up, too.
Nothing succeeds like successful men
Confidence matters more than ability — at least in a hierarchy. It works out great for anyone from a privileged background. They’re used to believing in themselves, despite their incompetence.
Disturbing research shows that simply having the confidence to apply to an Ivy League school makes you about as successful as an actual Harvard grad. Why would that be so disturbing? Because confidence so easily becomes overconfidence, and perpetuates a system that punishes anyone for practicing true humility, self-awareness, and grace. Consider this bit from Fast Company writer Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:
We are so captivated by arrogance, that we are happy to reward it even when we know it’s coupled with incompetence.
Super confident people tend to come from the top 10 percent of the socioeconomic ladder. Their self-esteem begins accumulating at an early age, reinforced by coddling parents. These super confident, rich white types go on to squeeze out everyone else.
Researchers at Stanford University write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
Individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident… Their overconfidence can help them maintain their social advantage by making them appear competent in the eyes of others.
They’re so confident, they think they’re qualified for things they aren’t. And the system rewards confidence over actual ability, so they actually get what they want — and think they earned it.
Now you understand why you keep having to train your bosses on things they should already know.
Now you understand why your boss doesn’t listen to you until the very last minute, when it’s almost too late.
Now you understand why all those loud, obnoxious men with no qualifications at all always manage to bark up more for themselves, despite doing inferior work.
You’ve been cultivating the “wrong” traits
It turns out that things like humility, cooperation, efficiency, and credit-sharing actually work against you in a hierarchy. Part of you always knew that. Maybe you just didn’t know you were in a hierarchy.
Why don’t you fit?
- You hate talking about yourself
- You prefer understatement
- You’re a schmidge too honest
- You (really) hate meetings
- You don’t constantly crave attention
- You value learning
- You strive for better
- You spend most of your time listening
- You don’t lap up fake praise
- You focus on hard skills
- You keep your confidence in check
- You’re actually very productive
- You promote others over yourself
- You always share credit
What in god’s name is wrong with you? Nobody works their way to the top like that. These traits come across as weak, feminine. Even men who act like this never make it anywhere.
At least not in a hierarchy…
So screw the game. Find a better one. Or make your own. You have the abilities to succeed without some system designed to protect true mediocrity, while pretending to do the opposite.
How do you make your own game?
Hierarchies exist to help mediocre humans maintain their wealth and status. They also dangle little carrots in front of anyone who’s willing to play along with the charade, Plato’s puppet show.
They eliminate threats — outliers like you.
So stop trying so hard to make a hierarchy fair. They’re not meant to be. Instead, you have to make your own system.
But how? A few ways…
- Stop chasing promotions for their own sake
- Become the best at what you’re good at
- Know your shit cold, for when they come at you
- Document the hell out of your effectiveness
- Create your own network of talented misfits
- Learn how to lie a little to the promotion grabbers
- State clearly what you contribute to your employers
- When they forget, remind them
- Say no to extra work and explain why
- Invest your extra time in hobbies and side hustles
- Or invest it in whatever makes you happy
- Leave and start your own adventure
You don’t have to climb a ladder up to your level of incompetence. This entire attitude sprouted from a flawed view of human nature. If you’re doing what you love, then a job title doesn’t really matter.
A salary only counts to the extent it buys stuff you need (and want), for yourself, and your family.
What really matters? Your purpose — the thing you know how to do, the thing that makes an actual difference in the world, the thing that leaves you feeling satisfied with yourself. If you can’t turn around without bumping into an overpaid, brain dead corporate flunkie, and it makes you miserable, then I humbly suggest you find a way out.