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KEEP THE PETER PRINCIPLE AT BAY

The best thing you can do for your career is learn to be more coachable

AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
Take it all in.
  • Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering director, DuckDuckGo

I really hate the “Peter principle“—the idea that people get promoted up to their level of incompetence.

The very concept suggests there is a limit to people’s growth. It assumes a fixed mindset on the part of the person stuck in a role they’re not immediately equipped to handle, and a lack of support from those in a position to help this person develop their talent.

Research shows that having a growth mindset (which mainly comes down to the belief that your talent isn’t a fixed commodity but rather a resource that can be developed) is a healthier and more effective route to success, and creating work environments supportive of this is an accelerant.

The Peter principle, then, can be broken by cultivating growth—as individuals and as organizations.

One of the biggest things that any individual can do to escape the fate of the Peter principle is to invest in becoming more coachable. It’s a powerful catalyst for individual growth, and it offers long-lasting effects—because coachable people are easier and more rewarding to help, they get more help and do more with it.

If you’re ready to invest in making yourself more coachable, here are some good ways to start.

1. Build your self-awareness

The most exhausting people to give feedback to are those who are so invested in some image of themselves that you can never really talk to them—only their ego. The easiest people to give feedback to are those with few self-illusions, and a level of self-worth such that they don’t find it threatening to know what they can improve.

In short, the more self-aware you are, the more people can connect with you and not the story you need to tell about yourself. Self-awareness is often hard won, but coaching can help, as can therapy and good friends who are willing to call you on your bullshit.

2. Broaden your perspective

Broadening your perspective helps you see things in different ways, to be more open to possibilities outside your world view. Three good ways to help with this:

  • Read a broad array of fiction. Reading fiction makes people more empathetic, especially if it involves a broad variety, written by people who are not like you. Memoirs can also be good for this (two I read recently and loved: Becoming by Michelle Obama and How to Be Alone by Lane Moore).
  •  Cultivate a broader network of people. Start by expanding the choices of voices you listen to on social media; over time, try and broaden your friendship circle. It’s worth noting you probably have to make more effort to become friends with people who are less like you, and do more of the emotional labor. There are entire books devoted to making more friends, so I’ll just note: don’t tokenize people, and don’t be creepy.
  •  Travel outside your comfort zone. Learn a second language (or a third!). Most Anglos have no idea what it’s like to live and work in a second language, but that is the case for so many people around the world. You don’t have to start by spending months in Colombia (although for what it’s worth, I recommend it). Start by visiting different parts of town, or nearby cities. We live not just in digital bubbles, but physical ones.

3. Shed your defensiveness

As a rule, I try to never defend myself when someone gives me feedback. Defensiveness either shuts the conversation down or makes it about your feelings rather than what the person is trying to tell you. Try and accept that anyone who cares enough to try and give you feedback is not setting out to upset you; offer context they might be missing, yes, but remember that too much context is just a nice way to defend yourself. You will learn a lot more from the conversation if you ask questions and “get curious” instead.

Importantly, you don’t have to respond in the moment. You can take time to process—maybe work through your defensiveness with someone else—and come back to the person to continue the discussion. Removing pressure to respond in the moment can help you avoid being defensive, and give you space to decide what part of the feedback is useful to take. A really helpful book on this topic is Thanks for the Feedback.

4. Own up

If you can admit what you’re bad at, the conversation starts with what you want to get better at, rather than forcing the feedback provider to convince you this is a thing you need to work on. When you start with a self-assessment that demonstrates self-awareness, a lack of defensiveness, and empathy for how your actions and stress fall on others, people are much more inclined to believe that their feedback will be heard and acted on constructively.

5. Ask for advice

Often people are afraid to give feedback for fear of upsetting us, and are particularly unwilling to risk this if they think we are doing well overall. (Or their assumption can be that they have nothing to add, or that they are missing too much context to be useful.)

For most people, it’s easier to give advice than feedback, so try asking for that instead.

Bonus: Stop giving advice

This might seem odd, paired with the point above, but most people are far too willing to give advice without context, and often without understanding what the unwitting recipient of their advice is trying to achieve. I tweeted about some programming recently and a guy sent me some undocumented source code and a tutorial… on a topic that I have actually published a book chapter on.

Personally, I declared that I was giving up on giving advice years ago, and yet I still find myself dispensing it. Usually it’s because people ask for it. But declaring a moratorium on giving advice can at least remind us to pause, ask questions, get context, and reflect back to someone what they are saying to us first.

While it might seem counterintuitive in terms of learning to become more coachable, refusing to give advice encourages us to take a coaching mindset with others (what questions can we ask to help them see things differently?) and teaches us to process better the advice we get. It also introduces the idea of consent—ask people if they want advice, or what they are looking for, rather than just assuming what they need. (Sometimes people just want to complain, which can be useful too!)

In conclusion…

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But think about the people you have helped—and how often the people we feel best about helping are the ones who have done the most with it proportional to the effort we have made. And then of course there are people with whom we tried hard, but had minimal impact.

Becoming more coachable is the work of being in the first group, with other people who understand how to grow. It has the potential to push back your own “level of incompetence” indefinitely. When it comes to your career, what could be more impactful than that?

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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