The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is a management concept that was named after Dr Laurence J. Peter who explains the theory that everyone in a hierarchy, from entry-level positions through to the CEO, will inevitably rise to his or her level of incompetence. Employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.

We live in a world where everyone is striving to become the best version of themself and rise to the heights where they want to be, whether it is financially or through hierarchical status. If every employee in a hierarchy continues to rise through constant promotions, at which point does the employee reach their technical or physical limitations? Evidence is often seen in the Peter Principle, where people become unhappy after receiving a promotion through lack of fulfilment or through the feeling of incompetency. Have you ever seen a football coach promote some of his star team players only to discover that they’re somewhat struggling to cope in their new positions? Well, the reason for such incidences is clearly explained in the Peter Principle theory.

In the tech industry, we often see evidence of the Peter Principle due to the varied roles and responsibilities often found within Tech Teams from technical staff through to management. Most entry-level tech jobs require technical expertise or some special kind of skill. The natural path in these roles is to eventually transition through to management roles based on their technical prowess rather than their ability to manage or lead. These two skill sets are seen at two totally different ends of the spectrum.

How to overcome the peter principle

The Peter Principle occurs more often than you think and can be seen to play out daily in the tech industry across the globe, but it’s possible to overcome it or prevent it. Employees and employers can actively work against succumbing to the Peter Principle through a few different methods:

1. Be thorough when selecting the right person for the job

When it comes to finding people to fill Management or leadership roles within the tech industry it is extremely important to look for those who have the technical skills to be able to make the right technical decisions in line with the business goals and objectives. These same candidates will often lack the skills required for management roles. Before the promotion of an internal employee, it is a good idea to sit down with the team and find out what qualities are desired. Candidates should fit the majority of the skill sets and not just the technical side. Even further, employers can use competency-based interviewing processes which include skills assessments to help identify the best candidate. This type of thorough hiring process can also apply when your company is searching for great entry-level candidates. If your company likes to promote internally, you can encourage your employer to seek entry-level candidates with strong soft skills. Those who possess such skills may make better managers if they’re ever promoted.

2. Provide great mentorship

Upon the internal promotion, it is important to evaluate the employee’s strengths and weaknesses in the new role. Additional training and mentoring should be given to the employee along with the tools needed to succeed. Every promotion entails new tasks, responsibilities, and perspectives. It’s not fair to assume that someone will automatically conjure the needed skills when they didn’t practice them in a previous role. Many employees that fit the Peter Principle example might become competent if given a fair chance and adequate support.

3. Don’t be scared of using demotion

One technique that is not always considered but can be a very good option is the openness for demotion in special cases. Suppose an employee has been promoted to a role that he or she is not adequately skilled enough to take up. In such a situation, the company manager can, in a very careful and delicate manner, bring back the employee to his initial position. If done correctly, there is room for mentorship and training for future promotion.

4. Employees should stop and think before accepting promotions

When employees are offered a promotion, it is usually an automatic response to do anything but accept it. Promotions are naturally flattering and exciting—not only do they symbolize your professional growth, but they’re a reward for all your accomplishments and achievements. Despite this, it’s a good idea to think critically before the employee accepts a promotion. Careful consideration is required to help decide if the role is a good fit. The following questions can be asked by the employee before they accept the new role:

  • Do I have the skills necessary to work in the promoted role?
  • Do I have the motivation to develop the skills needed to succeed in the promoted role over time?
  • What is most important to me in my work: salary, status or success?
  • Am I prepared to manage or direct my former peers?
  • Can I find training or professional development opportunities that would help me succeed in the promoted role?

By asking the above questions, the employee can help decide whether it’s a good idea to accept the promotion.

5. Be open and honest when in new roles

It is only natural to feel challenged and overwhelmed when employees take on a new role. It’s a good idea, for the employee to be open and honest with the employer and gently identify that a mistake has been made in the promotion. In most cases, employers will be very supportive and provide more training to achieve measurable results in your new role. However, if the situation is carefully considered and there is no value added by the employee remaining in the role then the employer can opt to move the employee back to their previous role or be considered for a different one. Again, although this may be unconventional in workplaces with top-down management structures, being open and honest with the situation will serve to benefit all parties overall.

6. Higher Pay, No Promotion

In most cases, employees are thrilled about the idea of promotion not so much because of the power or prestige but because of the salary benefits attached to it. To prevent an occurrence of the Peter Principle, employers should, instead of promotion, they can opt to generously reward their employees for their hard work through an increase in their wages. Coupled with the increase in wage, employers can assign additional responsibilities to encourage growth. This will benefit both employer and employee and avoid the effect of the Peter Principle.

Closing – Don’t Give Up

It is possible to overcome or prevent the Peter Principle before it is observed. Before employers give up on employees who appear to be walking examples of the Peter Principle, make sure you’ve done everything you can to help them succeed at their new level. Techniques such as Training, mentoring, and good leadership may be all they need to become competent. If these attempts don’t solve the problem, then positive outcomes can still be achieved by offering different paths in the way of an inverse promotion

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