Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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8/5/16: the Peter principle and the Matthew principle

I've been pondering two principles recently, the Peter principle and the Matthew principle.  the Peter principle, named after Laurence J Peter who devised it, goes something like this.  When going for promotion, candidates to a very large extent are judged according to how well they are doing their current job rather than some kind of assessment as to how well they well be doing the next one.  And certainly in the three sectors I am most familiar with - schools, universities and churches - there are quite often large differences, particularly in the expectation of people management, strategic thinking and budgeting, as one ascends the promotion ladder.

It therefore follows that, in giving somebody a promotion on the basis that they are doing their current job well in order then to do a new, different job, that there is a very real possibility that they will not be able to do the new job very well. If they are able to do the new job well fine, in due course there are up for promotion again and the whole cycle restarts.  As soon as people are unable to do their new job well, in general they get stuck at that level, probably not incompetent enough to go through the arduous sacking process but not doing a very good job either.

It therefore follows, albeit at risk of overstating the case, that the world ends up being run by incompetent people.

Meanwhile, the Matthew principle, which is a term used in the academic discourse surrounding special educational needs, has as its starting point Jesus's words quoted in Matthew's gospel (13:12):

Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.
Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

By way of an example in a special educational needs context, consider two young children, both from loving, supportive families, learning to read.  The first comes from a home in which there are books all around, parents read to the child right from the very beginning, as the child gets a little older she starts to look at the pictures and then to follow the words along, starting to recognise shapes to much adult praise.  As the child starts to read independently again there is considerable encouragement, and as progress is made the motivation becomes intrinsic as the act of reading opens up all kinds of wonderful new worlds and becomes a reward in itself.  On arrival at school this child is well prepared for what is coming and again is basked in lots of adult praise, encouraging further efforts which, as noted, are enjoyable in their own right.

Now consider the other child, in a home with lots of games and laughter but no books around and no culture of reading amongst the adults and older children.  On arrival at school the whole process of opening and holding books, the idea that the printed word corresponds to the spoken word, is new, with the child already behind the rest of the class and the teacher's expectations.  A sense of unease is aggravated by jibes from the other children and criticism of lack of effort from the teacher, and rapidly reading becomes an activity to be avoided if at all possible and to be endured when there is no alternative.

The starting point of Matthew 13:12 makes sense here, doesn't it?  If you have, more will be given, if you don't have, even that which you started with is taken away.  Memory is telling me (although I'd be hard pressed to find it) that there is American research, against a culture of long school summer breaks, that indicates that if you send middle class children away for the summer break, they come back as better readers, and if you send working class children away for the summer, they come back as worse readers.  I don't know if you would agree, but for me this has the strong ring of truth about it.

Meanwhile, I suggest that the Matthew principle helps to explain what is going on in the Peter principle.  The assumption here is that, if you find something difficult and don't enjoy doing it, you'll avoid doing it as much as you can.  So, somebody who has just been promoted to a post involving duties which, when they start trying to do them, they find arduous, arbitrary and misery inducing is likely, according to the Matthew principle, to try to avoid facing up to these new duties as far as possible.  And certainly I've been in working situations (fortunately I'm sufficiently old and have moved around sufficiently often that I can be gloriously vague about when and where) which have been somewhat frustrating when there are senior colleagues who have responsibilities they just don't face up to in practice.

It seems to me that, if one is in this situation, there are in principle two further possible ways of reacting.  One is to face up to the pain head on, grit your teeth and do what you have to do.  You don't like imposing discipline on a team?  Well, tough, you're the boss, it's your job, do what it is you have to do.  As I sometimes say as an employee of the Aga Khan University, His Highness does not pay us to do easy jobs!  I'm reminded of a poster I saw in the office of an education official in Southern Tanzania which went something like this: ulitaka kazi, uliomba kazi, ulipata kazi.  Sasa unahitaji kufanya kazi!  (You wanted the job, you asked for the job, you got the job.  Now you must do the job!)

The other possibility, if one is in a position of responsibility, is to delegate the tasks which are found difficult.  Of course, one can't delegate ultimate responsibility but in principle it may be possible to delegate some of the detailed work - which may be to the benefit of the person to whom the work is delegated if this is something they do like doing, are good at, and can build experience which looks good on the CV.  The Belbin test is one way of determining how one best fits into a team, what strengths one brings and what one needs from other people.  And, at least up to a point, it should be possible to bring a variety of different strengths to the table as overall leader of the team if one is prepared to share responsibility around in a manner which, experience teaches me, not everybody finds comfortable at all.

One reason for going down this line of thought, at least in part, is because we make two big demands on our students in the one-year intensive masters programme: academic English and ICT skills.  As one might expect, standards of both vary considerably amongst the student group.  Alas, delegation is not an option whilst a student, but as I said to the student group as they were starting: the temptation, following the Matthew principle, if finding it difficult to communicate in English on the one hand or to use computers for word processing, finding journal articles, etc. etc. on the other, is to avoid doing so as much as possible.  So my call to them, if finding things hard, is to use that difficulty as a rallying call to improve.  I'm not for a moment suggesting that this is easy, but it is the way to get the most out of the masters programme - and, more generally, to make a strong contribution in our professional and personal lives.


Just one final thing before I go.  Since I've been here in Dar es Salaam I have had a number of different ways of getting my car cleaned.  At the apartment block where I was previously living the security guards did it for me, about which I had mixed feelings: on the one hand this was very convenient, and I was very pleased to support a level of enterprise in supplementing their income, and they were scrupulous in not cleaning cars whilst on duty.  On the other, I was aware that I couldn't really say no to the offer.

This doesn't happen here, but until recently it was cleaned for me whilst in the Cathedral service.  However, this was one particular person who has now moved on, so I'm between options at the moment.  Meanwhile, as I was driving to the supermarket yesterday, a hulking great 4x4 drove through a very muddy puddle, giving my nice white car a huge great brown stain right across the passenger side.  Hmmm, need to do something about this, but what?

Only to set off for the cathedral this morning to find that the car has been cleaned for me.  But by who, this is the question?  Very happy to pay for the service but I do need to know who (whom?) to pay!  Hopefully can sort this out over the next day or so.

Now, before you write in to point this out, I do realise that I have the option of cleaning the car myself.  But that would seem a very strange thing to do locally, and I suspect (without any direct evidence, I need to stress) that doing this could provoke an angry response from people wanting to pick up some work, confident in their assumption that I can comfortably afford to pay.  So I do not in practice regard this as an option but am aware - says the man who employs a full-time housekeeper - that in a number of respects I am living in a manner which I will not be able to sustain when I return to the UK.  Better enjoy it while it lasts.

1 Comment to 8/5/16: the Peter principle and the Matthew principle:

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Jenny Spence on 14 May 2016 07:56
Hi Geoff, yes indeed enjoy your housekeeper and having your car cleaned! We were in the same situation when living in Bahrain, our car was cleaned by the gardeners. I'm sure that they appreciated the extra money from the 8 houses in the compound. We also had a live-in maid who cleaned for us twice a week. When we first employed her she wasn't living with us, but she had to leave where she was. She came to us and offered to work for nothing in return for the accommodation. Obviously we carried on paying her - this helped her save up enough money for her and her husband to return to Sri Lanka to their son, whom they hadn't seen for years. No, we didn't actually need her. Yes, we could afford to pay. But actually we had so much in comparison to what they had that we would have done it even if we couldn't really afford it. And, she made the most amazing curried pancakes for breakfast as a thank you!
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