Most managers have heard of the Peter Principle, which states that people rise in an organization until they reach their level of incompetence. And while the Peter Principle has turned into a cliche over the years, it certainly contains an element of truth. If anything has reduced the relevance of the Peter Principle, it’s that current business practice is much less forgiving of poor performance than it used to be. Managers may still rise until they reach their level of incompetence—but then they are shown the door.

Today, managers face a different kind of performance problem with their staffs. You might call it “performance plateau.” In this column, I’ll tell you what performance plateau is and what the early warning signs look like. This will allow you to diagnose performance plateau in your staff—and in yourself.

Stay tuned

In my next column, I’ll give you some suggestions on how you can break out of your performance plateau and help your people move to the next level.

Some questions to ask
When looking at the concept of performance plateau, or career stagnation, too many people think in terms of time. In other words, if you’ve been in one job for “too long” (however you define that term), then supposedly something is wrong.

Let’s be clear: How long you’re in a job has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. If you have a job you love, one that challenges you and gives you the chance to develop your skills—keep it! In the right situation, you can stay in the same job for years and still grow professionally. Performance plateau is about the absence of improvement. If you or someone who works for you is starting to stagnate, it might be performance plateau.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself to see if you’re still growing professionally. (You might want to get one or more of your employees to ask themselves these same questions.)

  • Are you getting complacent? Do you still have the same impatience that drives innovation and improves performance? Or are you easily persuaded that everything’s okay as it is? Is it getting easier to convince yourself that it’s not worth the effort to go from “good enough” to “outstanding”?
  • Are you more risk-adverse? This is a little different from the previous question. The first question is concerned with your view of the department’s current performance. This question tries to get at your willingness to take the necessary chances on bold projects and new technology. No successful manager can be foolhardy, of course, but you can’t always play it safe either. You need to have a balance between prudence and daring.
  • Are you more process-driven? You can’t run an organization without rules. On the other hand, being overly scrupulous about process isn’t healthy for a technical manager. After awhile, you run the risk of forgetting that process aims to help make your group more productive—it isn’t an end in itself. To put it another way, it’s great to manage the project queue, but the goal is to get the projects themselves done.
  • Are you more territorial? While you need to be able to stand up for yourself and your staff, if you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time (and your institutional goodwill) fighting turf wars. At the end of the day, IT managers get paid to get things done—not to excel at political infighting. (Cynics may scoff at that last point, but ask yourself this: What did you get into IT for in the first place?)
  • Are you still putting in the effort? No one wants to work for an organization where employees’ worth is measured strictly on the basis of when their cars arrive and leave the company parking lot. On the other hand, after awhile, it can become harder and harder to invest the time and energy needed to do the job right. How would you compare the time and effort you’re putting in now compared to a year ago?
  • Are you still engaged? For most of us, starting a new job brings a burst of passion and enthusiasm. We’re energized by the challenges of the position, and these challenges drive us to excel. What about now? Are you as motivated now as when you took the job? Is the job a challenge or a chore?
  • Are you still learning? IT managers are like sharks—they have to keep moving or they die. Being a technical manager means constantly learning new skills and mastering new technologies. Think of it this way: Every year, 20 percent of what you know becomes obsolete. Are you adding new knowledge and skills to make up the difference?
  • Are you maxed out? Here’s a tough question to ask yourself: If you’ve given the wrong answers to some of the previous questions, could it be because the job is simply bigger than you are? Despite your best efforts, could its success be beyond you?

Next time: The Rx
With these questions, you can do a pretty decent job of diagnosing performance plateau. In my next column, I’ll give you some suggestions on how you can overcome it and revitalize your attitude and performance.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I first started talking about performance plateau on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free, and I post to it almost every business day.