Debate Magazine

The Peter Principle in Reverse

By Stevemiranda

I had an awesome conversation today with Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, a pair of brain researchers who have specific expertise in dyslexia. They described a phenomenon I’d never heard of called “the Peter Principle in reverse.”

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The Peter Principle, according to Wikipedia, states that in a hierarchy employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. That means that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position at which they cannot work competently.

The data on dyslexics in the workplace is clear. They tend to be disproportionately represented in entry-level positions, but after that they hit a roadblock—getting promoted to middle management positions is extraordinarily hard.

However, when you look at who’s at the top of the organizational chart, you’ll often find that people with dyslexia are the CEO or occupying other top management jobs.

The reason is that organizations typically ignore Brock and Fernette call “the dyslexic advantage.” That is, while dyslexics famously struggle with certain cognitive tasks related to language, they’re often—because of their unique neurological wiring—wildly talented at big picture thinking and coming up with innovative solutions to problems. Many organizations miss this, and can only see the areas in which dyslexic people are weak.

It’s the Peter Principle in reverse: people with dyslexia get stuck in areas of incompetence and can’t get promoted to positions in which they’d get to actualize their signature strengths. (That’s when they quit the company and start their own business.)

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How much of the “Peter Principle in reverse” goes on in our schools?

And it’s not just the dyslexic students. Consider the kid who’s brilliant at leading outdoor adventures, but spends all day stuck in classes memorizing the names of Civil War battles. Her teachers don’t get to see her true genius.

Or think about the teenage boy who has a knack for connecting with little kids. He’s great at organizing third-graders into kickball or capture the flag games, but there’s no room for that in the typical school day. Instead, he’s putting on safety goggles and pretending to learn something in chemistry class. His teachers don’t get to see his true genius.

Most people will agree that learning about chemistry and the Civil War is important. But as a society, we need to have a conversation about the importance of helping kids achieve something awesome by engaging them in their signature strengths.

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