Posted by: kenwbudd | December 23, 2009

Random Promotion is preferable to flawed selection criteria

We’re accustomed to living in a meritocracy, an American word that means to promote on merit. Anyway, it has made us believe that any notion of getting ahead based on anything other than skill and hard work, seems cruel, bizarre and Kafkaesque.

Let’s consider that for a while. What if random job promotion turned out to be a better alternative to the Peter Principle, which posits that employees will continue to be promoted to the point of incompetence, and beyond it in many cases?

The Simulation
A group of mischievious Italian researchers ran a simulation of a 160-person company with a six-level pyramid structure. Each employee was assigned a degree of competence and the researchers ran two simulations comparing different ways for competence to carry over to a new position when an employee was promoted.

Common Sense
The simulations pitted the “Common Sense Hypothesis” where an employee is as good at their new job as at their old one against the “Peter Hypothesis” in which they have a random chance of succeeding in their new role.

In each of these cases, the researchers tested three promotion strategies:

  • promoting the most competent employees,
  • promoting the least competent employees and
  • promoting at random

Finally, with increased corporate efficiency as the measure of success, the researchers reached their counterintuitive conclusion.

Promoting at random or alternating the promotion of the best and the worst employees works much better according to our calculations,” said Andrea Rapisarda, the co-author of the study and a physicist at the University of Catania, in Catania, Italy. Inc. asked a handful of CEOs and management experts whether this sort of system could work in a real company

Do I like this job?
The main defense for what they’re puting forward is this; if you remove one of the extrinsic motivators, e.g. promotion or other direct rewards, people will be left just with the intrinsic motivators, ‘Do I like this job?’

If I know that my chance of promotion is totally random and has nothing to do with how well I do, then how I do on the job is going to be more based on how much I enjoy doing it and doing it well, i.e. motivation, social interaction and collaboration

The problem, if there is a problem, is that promoting at random may create a loss of morale in some ambitious people and a subsequent loss of effort, if they don’t think their effort is going to be rewarded. These are people are more likely to be the type of person that seeks immediate gratification.

Benefits for Creativity
On the other hand, there is an argument that says; if you try to reward people too much for being creative you might actually make them less creative. They need to extend themselves and take risks but they won’t take risks if they feel that everything they do is being watched and evaluated. Creativity is partly about having fun, being spontaneous, being part of something and job enjoyment is a big part of that too.

We have all been in companies where selection and promotion criteria is flawed or biased towards a preferred ‘character type’, levels of sycophancy and worse, discrimination against ‘minorities.’ These organisations and the people in it would benefit greatly from random selection when it come to promotion.

After all team building and collaboroation is about making the best of everyone in your team. These are talented, creative and inovative people. Brim full of under developed potential. That’s why you picked them in the first place, isn’t it.


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