Never place a tactician in charge of a strategic challenge. Their hammer sees every new problem as constituting another nail. Such exhibits the distinction between expert and strategic skill sets. Both are critical when it comes to solving multifaceted, novel and asymmetric challenges; however, it is the tyranny of the simple-minded, the disdainful miasma of the expert proceduralist, which renders the organizational/societal dynamic sometimes more daunting to solve than the challenge the organization was tasked to address in the first place.
During my decades of business advisement and observing personalities inhabiting my client organizations, there began to manifest to my observation, two consistent phenotypes of general professional personality inside a competitive workplace. At the extreme risk of oversimplification, and while acknowledging that many people bear traits in common with both species, we can frame these individuals along the profiles developed by Laurence J Peter in his book The Peter Principle,1 and American Psychologist Carl Rogers through his (psychology) theory of personal phenomenology.2 For simplicity’s sake, I call the first organizational personality, ‘Peter’, and the second organizational personality, ‘Roger’ – both in honor of their primary thought leading experts in business management and psychology. What the two researchers have outlined collectively is the essence of contrast between the organization procedural expert (Peter) and the multi-skilled adaptable leader (Roger) inside organizational development, function and more importantly, dysfunction.
The Peter Principle
Have you ever taken notice inside your graduating high school class, of the difference in success between people who made straight A’s say, in 5th Grade and those who flourished academically in high school and beyond. One may note that often, those who succeed early in a developmental process do not end up being those same individuals who succeed later in that developmental process. In similar fashion, many of those who thrive and excel at administrative tasks, fall prey to being overwhelmed or fail when faced with asymmetric or novel complex organizational challenges; ones say which might befit a higher leadership role. Such is the nature of what organizational behaviorist Laurence Peter outlined in his work called The Peter Principle. Individuals exhibit tactical competence, and then are promoted or rise through the ranks of a social structure, until such time as they encounter a level which outstrips their ability to perform well. This is shown on the left hand side of the chart above. Now set aside that this constitutes a rather simplistic view of organizational or societal development; and rather, embrace its principle in regard to understanding why such more tactically-minded persons tend to get upset when others who they perceive to be less skilled, are promoted or excel in their place. How can I, Salesperson of the Year for the Southwest US, not excel at being Vice President of North American Markets? How could such an event transpire? And how could a lowly Sales Engineer for the Northeast, who required an escorting sales professional on every contract he ever landed, then thrive so well as that Vice President? This is a dissonance I cannot fathom, much less bear!
Peters tend to outstrip their ability to perform at some point in a social or organizational succession;
whereas Rogers tend to thrive more effectively as they are exposed to increasing challenge.
There is a natural enmity between these two species.
What the Southwest Salesperson of the Year fails to understand, is that the skills which might enable one to excel at cold calling and reading field customers, might not also translate so well into reading the tea leaves of market inflections, or promotion of a change in the offering of inventory or product being sold to a whole new customer base. The temptation is for the Southwest Salesperson of the Year to get angry with the Northeast Sales Engineer who took their coveted position – and begin to point out how they don’t follow the rules or don’t know how to fill out the sales credit authorization correctly, nor can they keep a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software log accurately. Peter, the regional sales lead, will naturally bear a subception based jealousy and dislike towards Roger, the new Vice President, which understandably is not given in return. Peter may begin to manufacture sins in his or her head, which justify their indignation over the Roger who serves to introduce or symbolizes threatening stimulus. Roger, the ‘ugly duckling’ in such a circumstance, may be flabbergasted by the sudden appearance of vitriol and criticism, coming from people whom he or she regarded to be their allies and business partners, many of whom were at one time their friends – long before the promotion was ever even let. It becomes important for the senior executive or CEO, to spot their Peters and Rogers, and manage them effectively through organizational structure and reward – before Peter creates a problem and disintegrates the organization morale or its function.
/psychology : self deception : subconscious perception/ : a perceptual defense that involves unconsciously applying strategies to prevent a troubling stimulus from entering consciousness. The method of deceiving one’s self and others in the process of cynicism, jealousy or denial. A process of expressing unrealized subconscious vitriol, in which one habitually creates artificial ‘violations’ (usually forms of administrative or social protocol which their target ‘does wrong’ – quo facto malo – Latin for ‘having done this evil’) which their target of jealously or hate keeps committing – in order for the subception holder to internally justify their ill feelings toward their target.
Immature Peters will often resort to the crafting of negative clique-like social clubs in reaction to the presence of a Roger whom they have elected to target. If they cannot win by professional standards, they can always revert back to high-school style politics – especially inside an organizational structure with weak leadership. In this same way, the perception of science is ruled by Peters of social skepticism – they have failed at science as a career, so now they must make others pay for this failure. Moreover they must find some way other than competence or resilience, through which to be accepted at the level of power and prestige given a scientist.
Another feature of a Peter is that he or she gets ahead by claiming credit for the success of the group, regardless of whether or not they actually added anything of merit into its value provision. The Peter calls the meetings to order, makes sure everyone is on task and puts on an air of authority. The Peter will speak often of ‘there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’ but will stand exemplary of the supplemental apothegm ‘but there is often a hidden ‘me’.’ A Peter bears this concealed ‘me’ inside everything they undertake; and moreover, it is precisely this ‘taking of the credit’ which serves ultimately to be their Achilles’ heel, under The Peter Principle to begin with. This unmerited credit is what propels the Peter into those lofty levels wherein their incompetence can be ‘suddenly exposed’. At some point, it is not enough to merely be a titular head of the group. It is not enough to be in control and enforce ISO or ASME standards and protocols. It is not enough to patrol the hallways to make sure everyone is at their desk staring at a piece of paper or clicking on a keyboard at 8:30 am. As one rises in responsibility, the titular head more and more actually has to do stuff; make informed and ‘why and how’ based decisions inside a context of individual naked accountability. If a Peter’s entire career consists of merely who, what, where and when coordination, then they will fail miserably at the why and how decision set.
A Roger in contrast does not bear an innate craving to be recognized as the head of the group, nor to control others, nor to hold a whip of conformance, nor to garner credit for the group’s success. He is not necessarily the extreme of a polymath or pariah, as those types of individuals can be grating inside a team structure. Instead, a Roger gains his satisfaction through the accomplishment of objectives and goals – and knowing how and why such process worked. He is quietly passed from team to team to fix things, and must advance by the principle of ‘a prophet is never accepted in his home town’.3 For a Roger, even though they may rise through the ranks for solving complex novel and asymmetric problems, they soon find that the more they change settings, the faster they rise. This because they skip over The Peter Principle games played by each Peter Organization of which they were once a member. This is unfortunate but can be observed as the key to many people’s successful career paths – they must eventually sidestep and pass by the Peters, if the Peter Organization is not mature enough to spot the circumstance in their own ranks.
Skepticism and Science are Ruled by Peters
There exists a difference between what is defined in Organizational Behavior as a goal, and that sub-element which is defined as an objective. We observe this disconnect inside skepticism as well, wherein the fake skeptic regards the goal of skepticism to be a ‘conformance to knowledge’ on the part of the public4 – when such a mission constitutes merely one non-critical path objective. The actual goal of skepticism is the creation/refinement of knowledge inside a scientific context, or the opposition to scientific oppression inside a free society; as those constitute our first true priority. They are the heads on the very tippy top of the skepticism totem-pole. One of the objectives of a skeptic organization is to ensure that pseudoscience is not promulgated freely, of course – but this should never be practiced to the extreme point wherein our goals to create and refine knowledge or alleviate suffering are impinged. In such a circumstance, our objectives have become our chief obstacles to our goal. This latter condition is more what we face today inside science. Science is ruled by Peters. They thrive upon order and discipline, but most importantly conformance – especially conformance which best serves to place them in charge. Whereas a Roger tends to thrive better than does a Peter in the midst of novelty and unscripted complexity. Roger is a problem solver and gains from disorder. Peter is a status quo manager, and loses from it.
Ethical skepticism is all about knowing where this critical knowledge dynamic inflection point resides. Tacticians rarely grasp inflection points in asymmetry. This is why they often fail when pushed outside their comfort zones. This inability to see the forest for the trees is what distinguishes Peter from Roger. Such dilemma is exhibited no better than by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile, regarding what he calls the Green Lumber Problem.5
Green Lumber Problem
The Green Lumber Problem involves an essential misunderstanding between which facts are relevant versus those which are not, or which objectives are critical path and those which are not, as they may regard decision goals under uncertainty (multifaceted novelty and asymmetry).
“In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow called Joe Siegel, the most active trader in a commodity called “green lumber” actually thought that it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made a living, even a fortune trading the stuff [and went in to ask when he could begin trading ‘other colors of lumber’].6
The Green Lumber Problem elicits this issue of distinguishing one who can thrive in doing anything, from one who only thrives because they understand all the trivia, nuance and procedure surrounding a single discipline in which they have chosen to immerse them self. While this approach to knowledge and skill is certainly useful, it becomes a hindrance when such simplicity of role, is enforced as an effectiveness panacea. Joe Siegel, undoubtedly pissed off a lot of Peters in green lumber, by excelling inside their discipline, not knowing what the heck green lumber even was. Joe Siegel is simply one step removed from the thought, ‘Maybe there is a better way to do this. Maybe simply deriving wealth off the trade of the lumber is not the primary goal after all’. By thinking past the trivia and the rules, Joe has begun to develop a different ethical mindset than the 30 Peters who populate the cubicles around him.
There exists a difference between informing one’s self to establish control of a system, and informing one’s self to achieve a goal. In contrast with Siegel, a Peter crafts a world in which they are fully armed to know and control all within their reach – their goal is power. This foible tends to express itself inside organizations as rice-bowls, silo’s and kingdoms – the very elements of stagnation which an external consultant will find sport in disrupting. Peters bear a tendency to mistake academic knowledge for an ability to distinguish a goal from simply a critical or non-critical objective. This delineates as much as any single principle, the demarcation between academia and business. Those who can’t do, teach.
“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” ~ Laurence J Peter
…or as well, to realize that they possess little or no actual bearing on the goal at hand.
The Roger Principle and Why Rogers are So Threatening to Peters
Psychologist Carl Rogers outlined a series of propositions as to why the proceduralist is so highly threatened by the multi-skilled leader. Interestingly the axioms also explain why the multi-skilled leader rarely bears such animosity in return. Animosity is not critical path. Yes, success may serve to make a publican out of any barbarian; however, it is the flexible and tolerant nature of the Roger, which more readily explains why he or she is less apt to return hate for such hate. [To be fair, it should be noted that The Roger Principle is somewhat akin to Laurence Peter’s ‘Summit Competence’ principle elicited in Chapter 9 of the referenced book. However, Peter did not delve into the aspects of ‘congruency’ outlined below, which make this rare phenomenon possible.] Essentially Carl Rogers contended that all individuals (organisms) exist in a continually changing world of experience – what he called the ‘phenomenal field’, of which they are the center. One of his key (of nineteen) axioms outlines the principle thusly.7
Psychological adjustment exists when the concept of the self is such that all the sensory and visceral experiences of the organism are, or may be, assimilated on a symbolic level into a consistent relationship with the concept of self.
The proceduralist immerses them self in the discipline at hand. They are going to make an A in the class. They will strive to be the task expert. They will strive to rule the organization with regard to the single expertise set on their plate. This serves to align their experiences, as symbols which are now in concert with their perception of self. It is heady to be ‘the expert’ – and those who fall for such charade typically hunger for control, both of environment and organization. There arises a problem however, when this type of personality is thrust outside of their comfort zone. This Peter will exhibit a visceral dissonance, an anger which then erupts on their preferred target – the Roger who appears to not only be the source of the dissonance, but moreover appears to be capitalizing from it. To Peter, Roger certainly could not actually be thriving, because if Peter cannot thrive, then no one can – therefore in Peter’s eyes, Roger has to be taking advantage of the situation. Carl Rogers continues with two more of his nineteen key axioms, related to exactly this:
Psychological maladjustment exists when the organism denies awareness of significant sensory and visceral experiences, which consequently are not symbolized and organized into the gestalt of the self structure. When this situation exists, there is a basic or potential psychological tension.
Any experience which is inconsistent with the organization of the structure of the self may be perceived as a threat, and the more of these perceptions there are, the more rigidly the self structure is organized to maintain itself.
Therefore, Peter will almost always double-down in order to protect the gestalt of self structure upon which they so heavily depend. Anything; logic, science, reason, facts or even life itself if necessary are elements subservient to this Maslow-style need inside the mind of the pathological Peter. They will turn heaven and earth to keep things they way they prefer to view them. While this is understandable as a personal foible, persons bearing these traits should seldom be allowed to unilaterally manage the public perception of science. This is why we need ethical skepticism – the tyranny of the Peter.
The Roger Principle
/philosophy : science : psychology : leadership/ : the principle which cites that a multi-skilled, creative, congruent and leadership oriented personality will routinely rank level relative to his or her peers while performing lower organizational or administrative jobs; however will begin to increasingly thrive as they are promoted up through an organization and are exposed to more multifaceted, novel and asymmetric challenge. This will tend to anger the peers who were in contrast limited by means of a Peter Principle. Roger Principle individuals are usually targeted for disdain by tactic/talent limited persons, often out of envy or dissonance; and are usually flagged early on by their performance in more chaotic tasks or situations involving uncertainty. They can make for excellent CEO’s, strategists and thought leaders.
“In life minimize everything so you can capture optionality.” ~Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Roger does not cherish the idea of wasting copious amounts of time either mastering or managing low value tasks, as such activity in the end is often enslaving; standing in the way of his ability to capture the full value of a White Swan event or elastically respond in a moment of opportunity. After all, this is what good CEO’s do. In contrast with Peter, Roger just shrugs off the uncertainty of higher value tasks and instead focuses upon the overall sequence of critical path objectives, or upon developing new understanding in absence of standardized knowledge. He does not care as much about the protocol in assigning debits and credits to a T-account, as he does what such ledgers are used for and how such rigor may be exploited for competitive advantage, or even be outsmarted. Yes, details are important, but they are not what dictate one’s thinking nor boundaries. The objective of thought is to create new ways to view a critical path and to challenge why something is done in a particular fashion in the first place. A Roger does not want to drive off a cliff and cite how good his gas mileage is on the way from the edge of the cliff to the bottom. This is why Roger tolerates Peter, much better than Peter can stand Roger. Peter cannot fathom the reasons for departure from his neatly ordered environment or pathway to dominance and control. Rogers relate to a goal of succeeding and not one of personal control. Carl Rogers finishes his nineteen axioms with this exact point.
When the individual perceives and accepts into one consistent and integrated system all her sensory and visceral experiences, then she is necessarily more understanding of others and is more accepting of others as separate individuals.
A Roger can readily step in and be any Peter, but a Peter finds it extraordinarily difficult to be a Roger.
A Roger tolerates a Peter very easily; but a Peter finds fault in everything a Roger says or does.
Roger sees Peter as an essential aspect of the functioning company; Peter does not view Roger in that same way.
This is why Roger advances, and Peter does not. Peter cannot perceive this dynamic, so he blames Roger for his career stagnation.
One may humorously note that a Peter, when acting to the extreme, can often be regarded as synonymous with being a ‘dick’ (in older business vernacular). It is precisely their anger over the dissonance derived from mismatch between their phenomenological self and the environment in which they find them self (or wish to dominate), which tempts their observer to entertain such a nickname. In similar contrast, a Peter may view a Roger as an opportunist, looking to get a good ‘Rogering’ out of every new opportunity which arises inside an organization. Each may regard the other as a dick or a shark. Such is the comical nature of human competitiveness. In the end, the nicknames are not fair at all (and sexist to boot) – in that diversity of skill and personality in the workplace is exactly what makes for a strong and effective organization in the first place.
Why Roger Succeeds While Peter Often Stagnates
Peter succeeds at the outset because they have established them self as master of the topic at play. They are able to quickly grasp procedure and protocol. They have memorized each note and accidental, able to faithfully reproduce the correct sound as these symbols appear on the sheet music. This affords the Peter an advantage early on.
Capuchin monkeys beat 49 of 50 humans at intelligence tests, precisely because Capuchins do not confuse script-following with intelligence; opting instead for out-of-the-cage and goal opportunistic acumen. See Georgia State University research article.
Roger on the other hand, succeeds because he or she has honed specific traits which serve to enhance mere fundamental competency. They bypass the sheet music scrawlings and roll directly to a blues Pentatonic lead in A minor, expressed as a facet of their very being. They often become enormously bored with notes and accidentals, as the music has to exist inside them, or it does not exist. This may harm the Roger early on, but is of enormous benefit upon rising commensurate to a position wherein the success-praxis is no longer scripted. There is no sheet music, and the audience is demanding a sonata.
A Roger will succeed at pretty much anything they choose to do, save for many compulsory perfunctory or administrative tasks – often stumbling from the entailed tedium, rather than any particular shortfall in acumen or skill. Rogers are C-student bosses who regularly pissed off all but their most senior college instructors; who hire privileged A-student Peters who were those same pissed-off instructors’ darlings. Peter leverages his strength through fastidious displays of competence and rules following. Peter wants his benefactors to know that, by placing him in charge, things will go as planned; even if that plan involves running off a cliff and claiming the fantastic gas mileage on the way to the bottom, laying off one quarter of the employee base, increasing productivity regardless of the life-cost of the associates burdened with that increase, or extracting the wealth of the corporation to elite European bond trading accounts. A Peter will obediently trade and sacrifice higher goals, to increase his power base and money flow – as you see, for Peter these objectives served to obscure the real goal to begin with.
A Peter may acquiesce to the ‘best practice’ of shifting 80% of their company sourcing into one nation, or obediently generate efficiency-precipitated earnings to funnel to powerful outsiders/cronies for their wealth trading activity.
A Roger on the other hand might entertain a greater mandate for his corporation (like the well being of his employees and their families) – and seek more ethical alternatives to such greed and lemming activity.
However, as outsiders begin to see the Peters of industry as their spoils-enabling tool, we will observe more corporate failure and consolidation at the hands of Peter Principle Leadership,
along with the incumbent growing disparity between the worker and the extraction classes.
Flat organizations – hollow brands inhabited by CFO’s and supply chain specialists, lacking an authenticity of mission;
bereft of the vision and ethical backbone necessary in defending their stakeholders from creeping enslavement.
Carl Rogers opines on the Roger Principle below, through outlining those character traits which make this unique style of person successful. A Roger bears the following strengths:8
A growing openness to experience – they move away from defensiveness and have no need for subception (a perceptual defense that involves unconsciously applying strategies to prevent a troubling stimulus from entering consciousness).
An increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully – not distorting the moment to fit personality or self-concept but allowing personality and self-concept to emanate from the experience. This results in excitement, daring, adaptability, tolerance, spontaneity, and a lack of rigidity and suggests a foundation of trust. “To open one’s spirit to what is going on now, and discover in that present process whatever structure it appears to have”
Increasing organismic trust – they trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behavior that is appropriate for each moment. They do not rely on existing codes and social norms but trust that as they are open to experiences they will be able to trust their own sense of right and wrong.
Freedom of choice – not being shackled by the restrictions that influence an incongruent individual, they are able to make a wider range of choices more fluently. They believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior.
Creativity – it follows that they will feel more free to be creative. They will also be more creative in the way they adapt to their own circumstances without feeling a need to conform.
Reliability and constructiveness – they can be trusted to act constructively. An individual who is open to all their needs will be able to maintain a balance between them. Even aggressive needs will be matched and balanced by intrinsic goodness in congruent individuals.
A rich full life – he describes the life of the fully functioning individual as rich, full and exciting and suggests that they experience joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage more intensely.
It is not that we as ethical skeptics necessarily aspire to be solely a Roger in makeup of character. Peters are essential to any organization or society. Rather we should seek to avoid the negative pitfalls of becoming a Peter – infusing enough of the creative, free, organismic fascination with wonder and discovery to compel us to not fall into the trap of becoming a Peter of skepticism.
It is this essential nature of congruency which we seek to develop within ourselves- that which the universe is asking us to learn. After all, we know how to discern that which is relevant from that which is not; and as well the goal, from that which merely might appear to be an objective.
The Ethical Skeptic, “The Roger Principle”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 6 Apr 2019; Web, https://wp.me/p17q0e-9zc
- Peter, Laurence J. and Hull, Raymond. The Peter Principle, William Morrow & Co Inc, 1969; https://www.amazon.com/Peter-Principle-Things-Always-Wrong/dp/0061699063/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=the+peter+principle&qid=1554575833&s=gateway&sr=8-2.
- Rogers, Carl R, Lyon, Harold C., Tausch, Reinhard: (2013) On Becoming an Effective Teacher—Person-centered Teaching, Psychology, Philosophy, and Dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon. London: Routledge
- The principle originates from a series of quotes attributed to Jesus Christ in The New Testament, ‘Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country’ (John 4:44), ‘No prophet is accepted in his home town’ (Luke 4:16-30), ‘Only in his home town and in his own house is a prophet without honour’ (Matt. 13:54-57), and ‘Jesus left there and went to his home town…When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked…Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James…Jesus said to them, “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”…he was amazed at their lack of faith’ (Mark 6:1-6).
- Lewandowsky, S; Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism; Journ of Soc and Pol Psych; Vol 4, No. 2; https://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/604/html
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder; https://www.amazon.com/Antifragile-Things-That-Disorder-Incerto/dp/0812979680/ref=asc_df_0812979680/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312143020546&hvpos=1o1&hvnetw=g&hvrand=4989384980431163984&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9010753&hvtargid=pla-435487045883&psc=1
- Nassim Taleb.org (Unofficial News Site): Green Lumber Problem; http://nassimtaleb.org/tag/green-lumber-problem/
- Wikipedia: Carl Rogers; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Rogers
- Rogers, Carl; On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1960, London: Constable Publishing; https://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Person-Carl-R-Rogers/dp/B000YXUB52