“What a joke!”
We’ve all seen this movie before, haven’t we? A talented, enthusiastic software engineer, for example, excels at leading his small team and delivers big on a key project. The result? Promotion. Everyone’s happy, right?
Not so fast. Those tech skills—and a passion for creativity and coding—didn’t translate into “management material.” Leading a small group of like-minded peers didn’t prepare him for a director-level role. Managing a larger team, finessing and influencing stakeholders in other areas of the organization, managing both “up” and “down” turned out to be more than he’d bargained for.
We’ve seen similar scenarios play out on a much larger stage in the past few years:
- Troubled disruptive startup hires an academic superstar to drive leadership strategy, but the theories don’t pan out in practice.
- Traditional companies like GE hire internal “lifers” to move into the digital age but lose ground as global position and sales decline.
- Struggling retailer hires new leaders with old perspectives—and predictably disappointing results.
What’s the common denominator in all these situations?
Promotions based on historical performance that have no relevance to the new role. Let me be clear: If you make a habit of promoting people for the wrong reasons, the consequences for your organization can be toxic, even catastrophic.
- Reduced productivity
- Negative culture
- Stifled growth
- Attrition of good people
- Continuous incompetence
Perhaps most tragic of all, this practice often ruins the careers of your most promising people, some of whom would have been better served with a bonus, an award, or a high-profile “thank you,” than with promotion to a role they were unprepared for (and bound to fail at).
It turns out, there’s a name for this phenomenon of systemic overpromotion:
The Peter Principle
Coined by Canadian researcher Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his satirical 1969 book The Peter Principle, the main idea is that managers in hierarchies rise “to their level of incompetence” . . . and stay there. High performers are promoted based on performance in their current role, rather than abilities relevant to the intended role. Inevitably, managers stall once they reach their level of incompetence.
I can almost see your head nodding in agreement. Sure, what else is new? We’ve all witnessed the problem up close, probably hundreds of times in our careers. So is the Peter Principle inevitable in any hierarchical organization? Is it just the way things work? And do we have to accept it?
No, I don’t believe we do. As pervasive a problem as it is, there are ways to deal with the problem and get it under control, in any company or industry.
Ways to Avoid the Peter Principle/Overpromotion
- Promote based on skills and competencies needed for the new position. If you’re using promotion as a reward for performance or longevity, just stop. No one is entitled to promotion. Instead, promotion should always be a strategic business decision. Only those whose skills match the requirements of the next position should be considered for increased responsibility.
- Have specific job descriptions in place for the company you want to be, not the one you are today. Again, think strategically. Where are you headed, and how will this position help you reach that goal?
- Develop a solid organizational roadmap and HR plan. Invest the time needed to develop, review, and formalize your plan, and make sure everyone is on board.
- Implement continuous, EFFECTIVE training. I used the word incompetent in this post, but maybe it’s overused. It’s too easy to dismiss someone as “incompetent,” when we should be asking targeted questions: What SPECIFIC training does an individual need to prepare for a new position or improve in their current role? Can the skills be learned and mastered? (The answer is usually yes.) What resources are available? Implement the right training. Be laser-focused and expect results.
- Encourage job sharing/changing. When two employees share a role, this can allow each to leverage their strengths and shore up weaknesses. Of course, this won’t work in all situations, but it’s an idea worth exploring.
Finally, I think it’s worth saying that mindset and habit—in my experience—are usually to blame for holding us back and keeping us from mastering new skills. Whether you classify an ability as a hard or soft skill, humans (managers included) can learn and change, and not just when we’re young. They key is to set expectations and provide opportunities to learn those skills before throwing your best people into the deep end, hoping they’ll magically acquire the ability to swim.
What’s your take?
I’d be interested—and I’m sure others would be, as well—to hear your experiences with The Peter Principle/overpromotion and how you’ve dealt with it. It’s an entrenched problem in almost all companies, but one that needs to be faced head-on. Any successful tips or ideas you’d like to share with the rest of us?