Anti-patterns are common counter-effective behavioral responses to classes of problems or situations. Some anti-patterns are specific to individuals, some to groups, and some appear for both individuals and groups. Generally, anti-patterns differ from behavioral dysfunctions, which are also counter-effective, but which are usually associated with intellectual disabilities or psychological disorders.
The Peter Principle is an example of a group anti-pattern. It is the tendency for people in organizations to be promoted to the level of their incompetence. That is, organizations tend to advance the careers of individuals until they reach a level at which their performance is substandard, which leads to populating staff ranks with people who can't do their jobs. Another anti-pattern is the Identified Patient, who is the person identified by the group — usually incorrectly — as being the cause of its problems.
For any anti-pattern, five attributes are of interest.
- An anti-pattern's indicators signal its presence. For the Peter Principle, one indicator might be incompetence in managerial ranks.
- Any anti-pattern can have multiple causes. For the Peter Principle, one cause is that organizations tend to promote individuals based on their demonstrated performance in their current role, rather than an assessment of their fitness for the intended role. If at some level of advancement, their performance becomes substandard, advancement usually halts.
- What mechanisms create anti-patterns can differ from what sustains them. Sustaining factors Helping the organization root out
a specific anti-pattern is an
admirable goal, if your organizational
responsibilities include such activityinclude mechanisms that help it to survive or repeat despite its obvious counter-effectiveness. For the Peter Principle, in family businesses, for example, resistance to discharging incompetent employees can arise from a desire to maintain the livelihood of the incompetent family member. In government, political party loyalty can be a resistance-generating factor. In business, reluctance to discharge can occur when the consequences of the incompetence are subtle enough, or when they can be concealed.
- Defenses and workarounds
- It's helpful to know how to defend yourself against anti-patterns that represent threats to safety, relationships, emotional health, or career. For example, if you're the identified patient, begin by understanding that you aren't the cause of the group's troubles, and that you don't have to accept the designation. Then you can begin to search for the actual cause — or the actual causes — of the group's problems. And it's also helpful to know how to avoid an anti-pattern, or how to evade it.
- Helping the organization root out a specific anti-pattern is an admirable goal, if your organizational responsibilities include such activity. Determine first whether the needed actions are within your charter. If the issue is yours to address, what you do depends on the nature of the problem. Otherwise, you must choose whether to accept the situation as is, or bring it to the attention of someone who is empowered to act on it, or move on. It's a difficult choice.
In future issues we'll explore anti-patterns with this framework. In the queue already are Warlords; Ready, Fire, Aim; Utility Pole; Financial Nearsightedness; Refrigerator Territoriality; and Performance Review Revenge. Let me know if there's something special you'd like me to address. Top Next Issue
For more about the Peter Principle, check out Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1969. Order from Amazon.com. We should note that the Peter Principle was first enunciated in the 1960s, when involuntary terminations were much less common than they are today. So although examples of the Peter Principle were more common 50 or 60 years ago, they are still in evidence.
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And usually, our assumptions are valid. But not always.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.