The Peter Principle ? Still Wreaking Havoc

Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.

[Laurence J Peter]

When I was developing the product and service offerings for UTDS, it was my awareness of the Peter Principle that led to me to come up with the concept of The Managerial First Aid Kit. This service package is expressly designed to help persons transition successfully to their new roles. As such, it is an invaluable component of an effective succession planning programme.

The sad reality is that organizations tend to reward high performing technical officers by promoting them to management without acknowledging that the knowledge, skills and abilities which accounted for technical success do not automatically translate into managerial success. Incompetence Image

It is this said reality that’s at the heart of the Peter Principle as defined by Laurence Peter almost fifty years ago. Employees who excel in a given role find themselves promoted to a new role for which they are ill-equipped/prepared. They then find themselves stuck in this new role since they do not perform well enough to warrant further promotion. So, one might ask/wonder why the now incompetent worker is not dismissed/replaced. There are a number of factors which might be at work here.

  1. Could it be that the higher-ups who decided to promote you don’t want to admit that they made a mistake?
  2. Or is the organizational culture such that there is an unspoken rule that people don’t get fired for anything short of robbing the place blind or setting it on fire or causing grievous bodily harm to a co-worker or customer?
  3. Perhaps the worker in question is really good at getting other persons to cover for him/her or simply flying below everyone’s radar.

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Now, lest any of you private sector folks are feeling complacent and thinking that this only happens in the public service, let me make haste to disabuse you of that notion. The Peter Principle can thrive in any hierarchical organization. I’ve seen waiters promoted to supervisory positions. What do they do when the restaurant gets crazy busy? Do they plan, lead, organize and control? In many cases they do what comes naturally, the thing that got them promoted in the first place i.e. they show up as a highly functioning, uber-efficient waiter.Unfortunately, that’s not what they’re being paid and at a higher rate than the best waiters  to do.

So the Peter Principle has the potential to wreak havoc on at least three levels:

  1. The high performing technical worker who is promoted to management and fails to perform in the new role can become demoralized and may be ridiculed whether openly or more clandestinely by his/her former peers.
  2. The organization finds itself losing out on two counts i.e. losing a high performing technical worker and gaining a low performing manager.Print
  3. Other employees who witness what has transpired may conclude that it’s in their best interest to stay in the belly of the normal curve rather than attracting attention as a positive outlier and risk being promoted to a position where they’re likely to fail.

So, what’s the solution? At UTDS we advocate ongoing talent development  i.e. equipping individuals to succeed. This means looking beyond their current positions and collaboratively identifying future opportunities and creating development plans designed to enable our people to succeed in their current and future roles within the organization.

Have you witnessed the Peter Principle at work? What are some of the effects that you’ve observed?

1 Comment

  • Julie Meeks

    The link is fine now, and a very critical topic here. I have seen this in action very clearly. In tertiary education institutions, academic success is rewarded with administrative promotions. Needless to say, this is not always a good match. Good researchers and teachers don’t necessarily make good heads of department, division directors etc, and at any rate, usually have little training for these roles. There is greater awareness of this now, and at least at UWI there are much greater efforts to provide the newly advanced with necessary management tools.

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