Don’t fall victim to the Peter Principle

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

In most respects the reality of full-employment in the U.S. (everyone who wants to work has a job) is wonderful news. For those entrepreneurs who are trying to continue conducting business and grow their business, the joy of this news wears off quickly. By now, we are all aware of the “Perfect Storm” that is making landfall within the restaurant business: full-employment, rapid growth, a dampening of excitement over careers in food, less than  stellar pay and benefits and some not-so-gracious press about the work conditions in restaurants has made it nearly impossible for restaurateurs to find the right people, or for that matter – any people to fill vacant roles on their schedules.

What rarely makes the headlines is an ancillary challenge that is a direct result of this storm: Out of desperation, many employers are hiring and promoting people to positions that they are not yet qualified for. This, by definition is what has been referred to as the Peter Principle.

“In a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less effective because good performance in one job does hot guarantee similar performance in another.” – Dr. Laurence J. Peter – (paraphrase) from the Peter Principle 1969

The “Perfect Storm” compounds this problem as employers push the timeline on unrealistic promotions simply because they can’t find the right, properly prepared person(s) for the job. In other words, they throw the dice, hoping that the person will rise to the occasion.

There are numerous downsides to this type of hire or promotion. First, the performer is unable to reach anticipated goals of quality, speed and quantity of work, putting undue stress on the reputation of the business and tearing away at the customer experience. Even more significant is the negative impact that this type of move has on the employee who inherently knows that he or she is not prepared, but is still thrilled at the opportunity and the recognition. When these employees fail, they fall hard, and in some cases never fully recover.

In reality there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s on the employer, who should never put a potentially solid employee in this position; the industry, which continues to come up short when considering the training necessary for positions of responsibility; and certainly on the employee, whom despite knowing his or her shortcomings said yes to a job that they had no business taking in the first place. It is a trap without an escape route.

“A man doesn’t know what he knows until he knows what he doesn’t know.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Young cooks and chefs, beware. The job of chef is much more difficult than it looks.
The leap of skill from being a really great cook to being the person in charge is
monumental, even if your boss tries to convince you that you can do it. Think twice,
and then twice again before you agree to take the leap.

The job of chef goes way beyond knowing how to cook, having great knife skills, enjoying the wonders of a well-defined palate and being fast and sharp enough to man a busy line station during dinner rush. In fact, those essential skills are best left for the young at heart who are light on their feet. It is not common for the chef to work a grill or sauté station — not because they don’t want to do the work (although it gets more
difficult with age), but more appropriately because they have far too many other tasks on their plate. Chefs are planners, organizers, menu wizards, communicators, budgeters, human resource managers, psychiatrists, negotiators, effective public relations advocates, and team builders. Are you ready for these challenges? Do you have the time-tested experience necessary to be effective in this job?

If you think that your mastery of the skills on the line cook spectrum is transferable to the role of chef, you are mistaken. Certainly, you have to start somewhere, but before you say “yes” to the offer, ask yourself a simple question: “Is this the time for me?” If your career goal is to step into the shoes of a chef some day then make sure you build a plan focused on how to get there with a full bag of tricks.

“The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Even the best cooks and chefs will make mistakes along the way, but they do so with the ability to recover and a plan that allows time to adjust and take guarded steps forward. In this time when there are far more opportunities than people, don’t be coaxed into a Peter Principle situation. Take a deep breath, learn to be patient and build that strategy that will provide many more opportunities to succeed and far fewer chances to fail.

One thought

  1. Good advise. There are many people around without solid experience aiming for big titles and positions. To quote late George Lang, famous restaurateur in New York City: An Eunuch knows how it’s done but can’t do it himself.

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