A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 27th, 2013 by William

Hierarchal Exfoliation

Last week I talked about the famous Peter Principle and especially how managers, who have already reached “their level of incompetence,” often times don’t even know they’re at “Final Placement.” This is the “Ignorance Is Bliss Syndrome.” We’ve all come into contact with this type person in our career and I’m sure when you did you thought to yourself; “how does this person stay employed?” Despite the fact that once in management it’s usually tough to expunge an incompetent–they make the rules by which competency is judged–rest assured they do eventually fall under the knife. That’s because most Peter Principle sufferers, sooner or later, face what’s called “Hierarchal Exfoliation.” The problem is it doesn’t just affect incompetents.

In his ©1969 book, The Peter Principle–Why Things Always Go Wrong, “Hierarchal Exfoliation” is what Laurence Peter calls “the process of an organization shedding both the super-incompetent and the super-competent.” At face value it doesn’t make sense–why would an organization want to get rid of the super-competent? While all organizations have an aversion to super-incompetence, the fact is Peter is absolutely right–many organizations have the same unknowing aversion to those that are super-competent?

Peter contends that most organizations will “exfoliate” the super-competent in the same manner as the super-incompetents–like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Why–because to those in management, who have reached their “Final Placement,” the super-competent are seen as a threat to them and their status-quo. Brings new light to the oft over used recruitment catch-phrase of wanting to hire the “best of the best.”

According to Peter, “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.” Their presence “disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchal life: the hierarchy must be preserved.” It should also be noted here that simple incompetence doesn’t necessarily mean the employee will be exfoliated–that’s why many organizations are still rife with incompetence (at all levels) despite Hierarchal Exfoliation.

According to Peter, employees in both the two extreme classes–the super-competent and the super-incompetent are alike subject to elimination. We all know the super-incompetent are those on the lay-off list and will be expunged the next time business conditions warrant a reduction in force (RIF), but for the super-competent–i.e., the best-of-the-best–it’s a different process.

There are two ways the super-competent are eliminated. The first, and most frequent way, is for them to leave on their own. When hired, they expect to be part of an organization in which they can grow their career and if the organization is dysfunctional (which most are to varying degrees) and laden with incompetents at their final placement it becomes very difficult for them and thus they get frustrated and make waves, or leave of their own accord. They see the incompetents as blocking their career path. Peter calls these “Super-Incumbents.”

Of course if the super-competents make waves they’ll find themselves on that same RIF list with the super-incompetents. Remember you don’t disrupt the hierarchy.

The second way the super-competent are removed is through the infamous yearly Performance Review. If you’re seen as a threat to a boss who’s reached Final Placement the Performance Review will be the weapon of choice for him/her to “Exfoliate” you. I make the point in my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw that, despite your being in the good graces of a high level management incompetent, it only takes time until you’re seen as a threat and they must get rid of you.

There’s a way you can tell if this is being done to you. Recall last week’s blog post re; testing if your boss has reached his Final Placement…well performance review time will also shed some light on whether your boss has reached his/her career peak.

Peter explains it best: “If the superior is still at a level of competence, he may evaluate his subordinates in terms of the performance of useful work, e.g., the supplying of services or information, the production of [something] or achieving whatever are the stated aims of the hierarchy. That is to say, he evaluates output.

“But if the superior has reached his level of incompetence, he will probably rate his subordinates in terms of institutional values: he will see competence as the behavior that supports the rules, rituals and forms of the status quo. In short, such a superior evaluates input. In such instances, internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service: this is called ‘Peter’s Inversion.’ [Meaning the boss] has inverted the means-end relationship.”

If you’re a super-competent working for a competent boss (and he’s a true leader) you’ll probably be judged fairly, but if the boss is incompetent there may be no way you can win in performance review roulette. The other problem is that the performance review format itself forces bosses to review employees through “Peter’s Inversion.”

Peter makes an interesting observation that I’ve found to be quite true; “…one reason so many employees are incompetent is that the skills required to get the job [i.e., be hired] often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.” There’s actually another facet to that statement: what it takes to do the job many times is not at all what employees will be measured against once they’re absorbed into the organization and given their yearly performance review.

Once you’re hired, the organization switches focus from basic job competency to that of measurement against the subjective personality traits that make up most of the typical performance review criteria. Despite popular organizational rhetoric about valuing results above all else, performance reviews are typically focused more on the intangible, highly subjective soft skills that, many times, have really nothing to do with what’s required to actually perform a particular job.  So regardless of job competence–in this case super-competence–employees will often times find themselves being judged not on competence to actually do their job but how they fit the “mold” into which the organization is trying to force them. And all it takes is the incompetent boss to rate the targeted employee subpar on these criteria and he/she immediately joins the ranks of the incompetent and is a candidate for exfoliation.

The idea behind most employee performance evaluations is that, if you give employees accurate feedback about their weaknesses, they will be motivated to eliminate the weaknesses and thus perform better. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Einstein once said: “If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That’s the underlying effect that the modern performance review process has on people in the modern workplace.

The irony is that performance evaluations given to people who have achieved their “Final Placement” only serve to fuel their delusions of competence. But to super-competent people they will see the Performance Review process as an arbitrary device used to hold them back from achieving what they’re truly capable of.


One Response to “Hierarchal Exfoliation”
  1. Eusebio Bosh says

    Appreciating the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you offer. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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