A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 19th, 2013 by William

The Ignorance Is Bliss Syndrome

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the renowned Peter Principle? It was formulated by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their ©1969 book, The Peter Principle–Why Things Always Go Wrong which, if you haven’t read, I highly recommend. In the book Peter introduced us to what he called the “salutary science of hierarchiology,” something that I touched on in my previous two blog posts. It wouldn’t be fitting to talk about hierarchical organizations without including the Peter Principle in the discussion.

If, by chance, you’re not familiar with it, “The Peter Principle” states that: “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Peter’s also introduced a corollary which states “that in time every job in a hierarchy tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.”

There’s always been the old joke floating around the halls of business that most people, having reached their level of incompetence, are promoted into management where they can do no more harm. There’s a bit of truth to that statement and we all can probably think of people from our past that we’ve thought were incompetent for the position they held. Many times we make that distinction about someone based on our gut feeling about them, however Peter provides specific detail on how you can recognize and confirm that someone you suspect has reached their level of incompetence.

So the question for all the readers is: do you work for a boss that has reached his level of incompetence? If your boss (or anyone in your organization) exhibits one, or more, of the “traits/behaviors” that Peter details in his book, then he/she has reached, what Peter called: “Final Placement.” Here’s Peter’s list with a few that I’ve added:

  • Substitution – here the boss repeatedly substitutes something else for what really needs to be done–usually some inconsequential issue becomes center stage–this includes your typical pyromaniac who will start fires keeping his team perpetually in the “student body left” mode
  • Perpetual Preparation – here the boss concentrates most on preliminary activities, i.e., planning instead of just performing the task–these are bosses who will repeatedly bring up old issues that were thought to be put to bed
  • Side-Issue Specialization – here the boss consistently looks after the molehills and lets the mountains take care of themselves–whether (by luck) a good or (by negligence) bad outcome. If a good outcome he takes credit and if a bad outcome he will be the first to find someone to blame
  • Convergent Specialization – this trait takes the previous one to a new level in which the boss will take all issues and stall them by always needing more and more data before a decision can be made, i.e., pedanticism
  • Image Replaces Performance – here the boss exhibits self-righteousness behavior–obsessed with his credentials and letting everyone know his accomplishments and how good he was in previous jobs–his motto: “an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance”
  • Utter Irrelevantist – here the boss will focus on some completely different task from what is required of the job–much to the amazement of his subordinates–different from “Substitution” in that here his focus is on something not related to the job
  • Micromanaging – similar to the “Convergent Specialization” behavior where the boss micromanages every detail of his subordinate’s work–a dead giveaway is when the boss’s critique is focused more on form than substance
  • Workaholism – this is where the boss will put in ungodly hours yet not accomplish much in moving the organization forward or becoming more effective–used as a psychological ploy to attempt to convince his boss that he’s dedicated and working hard for the organization
  • Game of Divide and Conquer – the practice of the boss pitting employees against each other–done because he knows and fears his subordinates are better suited to do his job than he is and he sees them as a threat–by keeping them at odds with each other he deflects focus on his inability to manage or lead

Most bosses who have reached “final placement” usually suffer from “The Ignorance Is Bliss Syndrome.” This is where the person never fully realizes he/she has reached Final Placement. He/she continues to practice one, or all, of the above behaviors fully believing they’re great leaders and managers and that they are responsible for the success of the organization. Peter would contend that this syndrome is good for an employee because “he keeps perpetually busy, never loses his expectation of further promotion, and so remains happy and healthy.” However its bad for the organization as the above behaviors are also the symptoms of a dysfunctional workplace.

To make matters worse, most hierarchies, by their very command and control nature are so encumbered with rules and regulations, traditions, politics and oppressive culture that even high-up “Final Placement” managers do not have to actually lead anyone anymore–not in the sense of pointing out the organizational vision and setting the direction the organization will go. They simply follow precedents, obey rules and regulations, and move at the “head of the crowd.” As Peter would say, “Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.”

As a relevant post-script to this subject readers might want to look into the “Paul Principle.” Proposed by Paul Armer in 1970, it reaffirms Peter’s corollary. It states, “People become progressively less competent for jobs they once were well equipped to handle.” Armer claimed his principle is becoming more relevant in today’s high-tech, knowledge based organizations, where the complexity of the jobs grows faster than the people doing them. People once fully competent to perform a job find themselves being out paced by technological advances and also by the way most organizational cultures become stagnant to accepting change.

The Paul Principle may be little known but should serve as a wake-up for readers in understanding how essential it is to protect and prepare yourself in your job so that one day you don’t find yourself suffering The Ignorance Is Bliss Syndrome.


2 Responses to “The Ignorance Is Bliss Syndrome”
  1. Anamaria Heidemann says

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you.

  2. Eugenio Griswold says

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article. Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

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