Have you ever heard that “People are promoted to their level of incompetence”? It was an assertion made by Dr Laurence J Peter in his satirical book “The Peter Principle”, published in 1968 and still in print today. He was mocking management and management concepts, but maybe there’s some truth in it?

The concept is that when someone is doing a good job, they get promoted. And when they’re doing a good job again, they get promoted again to the next level in the hierarchy. It repeats until they no longer do a good job in the new role, having exceeded the training and experience and reached their level of incompetence. At which point, they’re rarely demoted, but instead remain in the new role, doing a less than amazing job, stuck at that level.
The pattern continues throughout large organisations until, in theory, every senior role is occupied by someone who’s not very competent in their role. It’s further suggested that all excellent work is produced by those who have not yet been promoted. Maybe we should think twice before asking to speak to the manager?
Management Training is key

So why does this happen? For a range of reasons. Mostly, when an organisation is growing and we’re looking for someone to promote, we tend to look for the person who’s performing well in their role. But therein lies the problem – good performance in one role does not guarantee good performance at the next level.

In Kim Scott’s excellent book “Radical Candor”, she tells the story of some excellent performers who reach a point at which becoming a manager is their only route to promotion and salary increase. However, people who are often excellent in their particular field of expertise are not necessarily good at management. Those who are good at managing ‘things’ are not necessarily good at managing people (and vice-versa, to be fair).

I’ve observed the truth in The Peter Principle. Of course, I’d hate to admit that person has ever been me – just as every manager reading this knows that it’s not them, just ‘other managers’. And if you’re the CEO, well, draw your conclusion.

Competent management – The Solutions

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Provide training before someone is promoted. Failing that, providing it afterwards is better than never.
  2. Select and promote based on who is most likely to make a good manager.
  3. It can be difficult politically, but pay should be merit and value-based, not hierarchy-based. In other words, a manager could be paid less than a star performer who they manage.
  4. Everyone, including the CEO, should have a PDP (Personal Development Plan) that records the areas of learning and experience that will benefit them. Think: “What would I need to learn or practice to be at least 10% more effective every year?“.
  5. Management training, like all training, should be viewed as a process, not an event. Don’t just DO some management training – build it into the culture and the organisation. Promote lifelong learning.