What's the Big Idea?

Each year, the Ig Nobel awards recognize the most improbable achievements in science, medicine, and technology - the surprising findings that make you laugh, then think, according to the award's presenters. Last year, an Italian paper won an award for pointing out that it’s better to promote people randomly than to promote them based on perceptions about their skills - research which should provoke more thought than laughter. Watch here:

The issue, says behaviorial economist Dan Ariely, is two-fold: first, promotions are often rewarded based exclusively on the results an individual achieves - or seems to achieve - without taking into consideration the myriad factors over which he or she had no control. It’s a myopic way of measuring performance, and it leads to the promotion of the luckiest over the best and brightest and most dedicated.

“Imagine you were in charge... [of a] seafood restaurant and you decided to open a new restaurant in the gulf” - a week before the BP oil spill, he says. “Would you get promoted after that? You just opened your restaurant, you spent a lot of money, all the seafood supply is dissolved and there’s no more tourists.” You might have been the most careful, wonderful employee, but ultimately, your actions, “from the outcome perspective, [were] awful.” 

The second problem with this scheme is the assumption that if a person really excels in his or her role, he or she should be handed more and more responsibility - creating an endless chain of advancement that is not necessarily effective or even beneficial for the employer or the employee. The Peter Principle is a satirical-yet-poignant comment on the tendency of hierarchical organizations to repeat what works over and over again ad nauseum, until finally it falls apart. (Think The Fast and the Furious V).

What's the Significance?

In most workplaces, “you get promoted and promoted and promoted until you don’t perform that well,” says Ariely. But to what end? Ultimately, “if you follow this process, everybody will get to the level of incompetence.” That’s life, you could say, and you’d be right: Ariely’s own research focuses on the “predictable irrationality” of human behavior, demonstrating how often we make choices based entirely on illogical assumptions. However, Ariely believes that we have the power to make better choices through self-reflection: by redefining the way we understand certain concepts like success.

Think about it - are you going after that promotion because you really want to put in more hours and challenge yourself with a supervisory role, or because you've always seen it as the next step? Perhaps a great manager is just that: a great manager, whose experience should be valued and shared without the unspoken expectation that she venture further and further up the ladder, always grasping at something just out of reach.