They promoted that guy!?!…The Peter Principle

peter principle

The Peter Principle. You may not have heard of it directly, but you have likely endured its wrath. The Peter Principle is rising to the highest position….of your incompetence. So, when you’re sitting at work wondering how your boss got his or her job, it could be the Peter Principle at work.

History of the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is has been around for quite some time, since 1969! The person who coined the name was Laurence J. Peter. Actually, he was a teacher that was lecturing about his business observations. Then he was encouraged to write the book! So…this kind of stuff has been going on since before 1969. That’s crazy! Forbes writes more about the Peter Principle in this article here

The Peter Principle alive and well today!

The Peter principle is still alive and well 50+ years later! It is common in hierarchical businesses. You don’t see it nearly as much in flat organizations. I don’t think falling prey to the Peter principle is ever an intentional thing. Usually, the intentions are very good. You want to reward an employee’s outstanding work by promoting them. The employee wants to be recognized too! However, before taking any promotion, the candidate must ask themselves: 1. Can I do this job? 2. Will this help me grow my career in the right direction? A promotion is not always a good thing.

When you can only climb one corporate ladder

When I was at big car company the Peter principle was alive and well. It was also occurring over and over again. The biggest reason….there was only one path you could take. You start out as a salesperson, then go to the assistant manager, then to a manager and then it stops. One path only. Those who get the corporate positions know someone. Or, someone owes them a favor.

And when you don’t…

I had a manager once tell me ‘I know you want to be assistant manager, so don’t worry we are going to get you there!’. Actually, I never said I wanted to be assistant manager. This ‘promotion’ would be a pay cut, I wasn’t interested. Marketing was where I wanted to be. By that point, it was crystal clear that I wasn’t going to get there with this company because I wasn’t ‘schmoozy’ enough. When my manager said this to me, I had already been looking for another job. Here’s the thing, I knew that this ‘promotion’ would have put me to the highest level of my incompetence. It would not have been good for me. I would have to deal with the really crazy customers, I would have to try to encourage my co-workers to sell products I knew were redundant, I just didn’t want to do it.

The problem with that is….

Often times you lose a good salesperson (not always ethical but good in the sense they make you money). Then, you gain a bad manager. I’ve worked for many managers who have been good sales people, and horrible managers. They didn’t know what they were doing, they couldn’t manage people, they were disorganized, and could not manage their AP and AR! But, they were really good at sales so corporate promoted them to manager….

A Better Solution

Einstein said “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.” Not everyone is suited for every position within a corporation. Putting good employees in positions where they are doomed to fail is not only demoralizing to them, but it hurts your business. You know the saying ‘you can’t put a square peg in a round hole’. Why would you try?

Why would you tell a great salesman, to stop doing sales….

That doesn’t make sense to me either. ‘Hey, you’re really great at sales, so we’re going to have you do something else.’ That makes no sense. When you promote a great salesman to a manager and that’s not their strength, well you’ve got a problem on your hands. A better solution would be to motivate them where they are at. I’ve said this before, many salespeople are motivated by money. Why not increase their commission percentage? Ensure they are getting a good number of leads, so they can close them. Support them where they are at.

Make more than one ladder…

Are there many different career trajectories for your employees? Based on their skills and desires? If not, you may be setting your self up for a lot of turnover. Not everyone wants to go up the same career ladder. A software engineer might not want to ‘promote’ into a management position. He may like designing code, and may not like managing people. So, what would motivate him or her? Pay raise? Increased vacation time for on time delivery with minimal bugs? It’s worth asking. Maybe making said programmer lead or senior programmer. Giving this person more challenging projects? That’s a career ladder they might just like to climb! A marketing coordinator may like to take on bigger clients and projects, but may not want to manage people. Meet them where they are at.

I’ve dealt with the Peter principle first hand on more than one occasion. It just keeps happening over and over again, and it’s really mind boggling. However, this satiric principle does not have to play a role in your business. Talk with your employees, see where they really want to be in 5 years. See if you can make that happen it would benefit you too. You don’t have to be another statistic 🙂 Conquering this can help you get the best out of your employees and get a leg up on your competition 🙂

4 thoughts on “They promoted that guy!?!…The Peter Principle

  1. What great advice for organizations! I loved being a project engineer, but was not rewarded for taking on bigger, more difficult projects. The only way to get “promoted” was to go into sales. I would have loved if there had been a career ladder where I could have stayed in my current role.

    1. Christy, it’s so unfortunate when that happens! I’ve seen it in a lot of places I’ve worked too. I wanted to be in marketing, but the only way to get there was to quit the company I worked for. You would think it would be mutually beneficial to create multiple ways for employees to advance their careers, but it’s not always the case 🙁

  2. Great insight. What a waste it is to move people out of their strengths! It’s better to find someone’s passion, what drives them, and enable them to unleash that in your company.

    Keep up the great work here, lovely lady, and live unstoppable!

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