In 1969 Lawrence J. Peter wrote The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. It was a satire on traditional business research writing, featuring fake examples and humorous cartoons. It managed to strike a chord, it spent 33 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list and has been in print continuously since its release. At its heart was a Dilbertian maxim: every employee tends to rise to his/her level of incompetence. Everyone who has ever had a bad manager might quickly give a nod of the head to this obvious bit of wisdom, but what’s behind the half-joke-half-truth? And what can we do to combat it?
Very often an employee who performs well in a particular field can receive a promotion which puts him/her into managing others like him. Peers see this as a worthy reward, and management can point to the joy of promoting from within as opposed to bringing in an external hire. But why is this flawed? It assumes that competence in one field means competence managing those who are competent in that field. It is certainly possible that someone who is good at sales, for example, might be a good sales manager, but you wouldn’t look to their sales figures in order to make that decision. How well someone sells has nothing to do with their ability to manage people. Even worse, if these great salespeople happen to be the “lone wolf” type who wanders into the customer wilderness alone and comes back with all kinds of sales, they don’t possess the collaborative team spirit in their own practice, therefore they will be ill-placed to try to teach that kind of method/use those sorts of techniques when managing a team.
Tragically, companies pay twice for a bad hire in this field. They remove a top performing salesperson, thereby affecting their sales numbers, then place in a key position of influence someone not necessarily qualified for the job, which puts that person in a position to drag the entire team down. The most productive worker is not necessarily the best candidate for management.
The funny quotable of the Peter Principle is “rising to the level of incompetence” but the more sobering reframe would be “pulled out of the area of competence.” Another quote from the book is “The cream rises until it sours.” This isn’t just a question of putting a bad manager in place, but also of running the risk of demotivating, and possibly losing, that previously high-performing employee in the first place.
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, you need to have frequent one-on-ones with the staff who are reporting to you. If you’re giving them feedback and making sure they know you are serious about their personal and professional development, they give you other data points that can validate whether they are management material outside of high performance in their areas of competency. To this you can add things like peer reviews and DISC profiles.
A Corollary from Admiral Kirk
For those of a certain age, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan presents a case study of the Peter Principle in the case of Admiral James T. Kirk. Renowned for his heroics and leadership as a front-line commander, Kirk was automatically promoted out of his competency into a “desk job” as an Admiral. Still, he couldn’t help being part of a commissioning ceremony for the Enterprise, and well, Ricardo Montalban and a thoughtful storyline did the rest. Where we could see the Peter Principle at play was Kirk naturally fitting into his role as a starship captain. Yes, he did possess incredible competence as a leader, but did being a great front-line leader have anything to do with the administrative skills it takes to be an admiral? In the end Kirk received what he might have sought had his management team used some of the remedies we proposed above: a demotion, without rancor. Joyfully, Kirk was back in his level of competence, and his team benefited from it.
If we understand that the best way to deal with excellent team members is not necessarily to promote them into positions of management, but to find ways to keep them occupied, engaged, and performing at a high level, then we can directly combat the Peter Principle. If we manage to find varied ways to test whether someone is competent for a position, we’ve created infrastructure in which such a principle can’t even survive.