The Dilemma of the Capable

by Krishna on July 29, 2007

The Peter Principle states that in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence. In other words, every employee gets promoted until they reach a level where they are unable to perform their duties well and hence cannot be promoted. A variant I have noticed on the Peter Principle is this: If you are sufficiently capable in certain activities, you will find yourself getting involved in other activities, voluntarily or involuntarily.

Suppose you are hired to do a particular job, maybe let’s say a programmer. If you do your job well on time, people will notice you and they will think that you are capable of greater things. It does not matter whether you are capable of those new things. The fact that you are good in something shows that there might be the potential for you to do more.

Showing capability draws the attention of both your peers and managers. And they start asking you to do things that are beyond what you initially signed up for. For example, your fellow programmers may ask you to help them with their coding problems. Your manager may ask you to help out with some of the management activities like planning and reporting.

This situation may also happen voluntarily. If you are sufficiently capable, you will find yourself finishing work faster than other people. Instead of sitting idle, you will start trying to find ways to contribute to the team or doing more work. Most capable people find it really difficult to pass their time doing nothing.

However it occurs, this situation poses a few management problems both for the capable employee as well as the manager:

  1. Any additional activities done by the employee cannot usually be compensated in real-time by the manager, regardless of the benefits to the project or the organization. The actual reward may come much later in the form of a promotion or a good opportunity and this time lapse makes it difficult to establish the correlation between the reward and the prior work. In the meantime, the employee may feel short-changed.
  2. The additional activities may overwhelm the employee and affect their normal work. When this happens, the employee stops taking responsibility for their primary work. Sometimes, this results in even basic tasks in their domain of expertise going on the backlog. The tolerance for additional tasks varies from one employee to another, but once it crosses the threshold, even one additional task beyond regular work is intolerable.
  3. Extra voluntary contributions from an employee, like a new innovation, may sometimes be interesting, but not of use to the project or organization. Rejecting such contributions can cause them to lose motivation and not spend further time and effort in additional activities in the future, even though they still have the potential of doing something useful.

This issue is sometimes referred to as  the “over-qualified employee” problem. Most management books talk about hiring the best employees. But hiring a highly capable employee can backfire on you if they are hired to do something entirely below their capabilities. You will find them contributing beyond what they are hire for. At the same time, you cannot compensate them enough or help them focus on what they must do.

In some environments, such as product companies in a rapidly evolving market, this may work out well. In stable environments with limited product and service profit margins, this is not the case. Capable employees in such environments may find themselves like space travelers in the Stone Age. Managers also find it difficult to manage the expectations of such employees.

What should a manager do with such capable employees? The most important thing is to establish the right expectations between effort and reward. If there is no guarantee of rewards, then the employee should be asked to scale down their efforts or do it on their own interest or risk. Discourage activities that may at some time overwhelm the employee.

But before all that, hire the right person for the position.


Irene July 30, 2007 at 10:38 pm

Interesting principle. Being capable is one of the good things we can take advantage of.

cOOL_aLIEN_fRM_mARS August 3, 2007 at 3:51 am

This really strikes a chord with me as a employee...I have slowly understood that at times its better to take up and do lesser things rather than be disappointed at the time of appraisal.

Krishna Kumar August 3, 2007 at 3:12 pm

@cool alien

If you are going to do something extra from your roles & responsibilities, do it because you like it, or you feel an obligation towards the organization. If neither is the case, understand what you will get for it before starting it.

Of course, you may not always be able to make such choices. Still, whenever you can, you should understand what you are getting into.

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