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Incompetence and (under)development in human societies

By Chimdi Maduagwu
I am fascinated by the outcome of a careful study by an American researcher, Dr. Laurence J Peter, which has today become known as “The Peter principle.” This study focuses on one fundamental principle of relationships both at the formal and informal levels. This is hierarchy and he devised a study series he referred to as hierarcheology.

His postulation is, in simple terms, that hierarcheology is the major problem of the organized human society. Why it is a problem is because it affects professional responsibilities by its inability to create awareness of such responsibilities. The logical consequence of such a development, according to “The Peter Principle” is incompetence in the execution of professional responsibilities.

I do not think that Laurence Peter is absolute in his condemnation of hierarchy in human affairs, but what seems to pose a problem, for him and indeed, humanity is the improper construction and constitution of hierarchies.

The major question appears to be drawn upon the basis of the construction of hierarchies. Like I would want to ask, how are hierarchies formed? Laurence Peter does not seem to be interested in this. He rather decides to work on existing hierarchies. But I think hierarchies essentially thrive on existing platforms. They lean on natural gradations, which appear to command respect from everyone.

For instance we say, “all fingers are not equal.” Another instance, human beings vary in physical shapes and sizes as well as in brilliance and wisdom as well as other endowments and attributes.

These examples and very many other natural indicators are in themselves, bases for hierarchies and present patterns for construction of hierarchies. Being that, no matter what happens, humanity is most times organized in terms of hierarchies; it does not seem to attract the attention of Dr. Peter, how hierarchies are formed. His interest is on the constitution of hierarchies. Peter rightly decides to choose the organized work situation, where there are likely to be all classes of human beings for the study of the constitution of hierarchies and the awareness and non-awareness of those who occupy hierarchies of the responsibilities, albeit, professional responsibilities of the various rungs of the ladder (hierarchies) at work place.

He presents, as it were, a plethora of cases to support his study of the issues surrounding awareness and non-awareness of professional responsibilities, which breed incompetence. His research is powered by very strong (research) questions. These include: “why schools do not bestow wisdom; why governments cannot maintain order; why courts do not dispense justice; while prosperity fails to produce happiness; why Utopian plans fail to generate Utopia.”

I am tempted to stop here and relate Peter’s thesis to Nigeria, which is my responsibility as a writer, but let me ask for your kind permission to take yet another slice of the controversial Peter Principle. It is a principle behind “why things always go WRONG.” The answer is summed in a view that the society, our society is “the perpetrator and rewarder of incompetence.” In an earlier piece, on this bit, I attempted an explanation of the term “incompetence.”

My readers already know that. Here, Dr. Peter explains that institutions and organization are structured in a way that people are constantly promoted into incompetence. This gives me my notion of the constitution of hierarchies. From this perspective, all hierarchies are made up of incompetent personnel. I am not sure I haven’t concluded this essay because bringing incompetence in, as the nucleus of hierarchies seems to be strong enough to draw the curtain.

However, I think I still owe some explanations. How are people promoted to incompetence? Borrowing ideas from Dr. Peter, all personnel keep moving upward on the ladder of professional success, until they get to the highest level of their incompetence.

I like this because I can illustrate the movement to incompetence with the development in our society. I am not exactly going to isolate the developments in my Nigeria from those of other sovereignties. Like the USA, which forms the study ground for Dr. Peter’s research, Nigeria also has a system that thrives on rewards which perpetrate incompetence. In general terms, a typical example of promotion to incompetence (which is about the case in all sectors) can be exemplified in this brief case:

A young man with some degrees in English is employed as a lecturer 11. He does well and after three years, he is promoted to the next grade lecturer 1. At this level, he is expected to join in producing higher degrees, precisely, postgraduate degrees. At the point that he is promoted, he is adjudged good in teaching (instructing and lecturing) undergraduate students but he is most likely going to be unaware of the requirements for and thus incompetent in administering over research students, who are expected be capable of independent study.

This lecturer is still likely to insist on imposing himself on the advanced students as he is used to, in respect to undergraduate. However, he continues and learns on the job (in service training or acquisition of knowledge). Unfortunately for the system (and fortunately for the personnel concerned), after another three years, he is promoted to Senior Lecturer and while on that position, appointed Head of Department.

This could be because he has done very well as a lecturer. Now as a head of department, he is not only expected to instruct and lecture, he will be involved in general administration. He will see to the affairs of students and their activities, faculty and staff of the department, curriculum and other academic matters of the department; he will also team up with other administrators to proffer solutions to the general problems of the faculty, university and the outer community. All these are bound to overwhelm him and he, no doubt will show incompetence in his responsibilities as a head of department. The irony of it all is that a hitherto great lecturer and researcher has turned out to be an incompetent administrator.

The reason is simple, according to Laurence Peter; he is, at the point of his appointment as the head of department, unaware of the full responsibilities of the position and the lack of awareness results in incompetence. Let’s not forget that there is also a tendency for the incompetent head of department to improve and to attain competence. Yet, as soon as this is achieved, he is likely to be promoted again to the position of a programme director, dean or provost, where once more he will become incompetent. He may actually retire at this position of incompetence. I am interested in Dr. Peter’s careful study of the organizations and how promotion results in incompetence and will endeavour to relate that to our (under)development in this country. Let’s get on to that in the next couple of writings on Bits and Pieces.


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