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Academic Medicine and the Peter Principle

By BEN WHITE, MD

Over four years of medical school, a one-year internship, a four-year radiology residency, a one-year neuroradiology fellowship, and now some time as an attending, one of my consistent takeaways has been how well (and thus how badly) the traditional academic hierarchy conforms to The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle, formulated by Laurence J Peter in 1969, postulates that an individual’s promotion within an organizational hierarchy is predicated on their performance in their current role rather than their skills/abilities in their intended role. In other words, people are promoted until they are no longer qualified for the position they currently hold, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

In academic medicine, this is particularly compounded by the conflation of research prowess and administrative skill. Writing papers and even getting grants doesn’t necessarily correlate with the skills necessary to successfully manage humans in a clinical division or department. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that they may even be inversely correlated. But this is precisely what happens when research is a fiat currency for meaningful academic advancement.

The business world, and particularly the tech giants of Silicon Valley, have widely promoted (and perhaps oversold) their organizational agility, which in many cases has been at least partially attributed to their relatively flat organizational structure: the more hurdles and mid-level managers any idea has to go through, the less likely it is for anything important to get done. A strict hierarchy promotes stability primarily through inertia but consequently strangles change and holds back individual productivity and creativity. The primary function of managers is to preserve their position within management. As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (which incidentally is a perfect summary of everything that is wrong in healthcare and politics).

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