How to Prevent Your Talent From Falling Victim to The Peter Principle
Don’t Gamble That Your Top Performers Will Succeed in Their New Roles
It’s been more than four decades since Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull articulated the talent management blunder known as “The Peter Principle.” Their book provided a comical view of organizational hierarchies that explains why incompetent people are promoted into positions for which they aren’t suited. The trouble is, when you work for that person (or are that person), it isn’t funny. How can you avoid falling victim to The Peter Principle?
According to Wikipedia, The Peter Principle:
holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions.
It goes on to say that coworkers who haven’t yet reached their highest potential are the ones who take up the slack for those who have, and that subordinates should master the tactic of “managing upward” as a way to circumvent the effects of an incompetent manager.
You’d think that after so many years someone would have figured out a way to avoid or eradicate this problem. Baby Boomers who were 20 when the book was published are now retiring – they’ve worked their entire careers at its mercy! It’s taught in business school, but apparently it’s a lesson learned but not taken to heart. It usually comes down to a gamble that “it won’t happen this time.”
There are two situations in which The Peter Principle most often emerges:
- Being promoted to a manager from a position such as top-producing sales person or brilliant engineer
- Transitioning from individual contributor to a team leader or manager
Failure #1. Top performers lack the necessary skills (or potential to develop them) to be promoted.
The first scenario may be a tired cliché in business lore, but as long as the problem persists, we’ll continue to cite it. It’s as obvious as watching a suspense or horror movie – the protagonist is about to open the door, behind which the monster lurks. “Don’t go in there!” we think, but of course they go. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but we do it anyway.
When people are good at what they do, it’s natural to assume that they can continue to perform at higher heights, increasing their abilities and living up to the next level of their potential. But what’s often taken for granted is that potential is limitless. Instead, some people’s natural abilities are only developed so far. It’s not to say that new skills and behaviors can’t be learned or cultivated, but recognize when they’re not yet present so that you don’t promote too soon and risk failure.
You know the cliché, so you know the outcome: you not only lose your top sales person, but you also lose productivity and momentum of the team while needing to search for, select, and onboard the failed manager’s replacement. The opportunity costs lost can be significant.
Craig Juengling shares a success story of using Checkpoint 360 with new leaders
Craig Juengling shares a success story of using Checkpoint 360 with new leaders.
Failure #2. Individual contributors lack the mindset to change from a “me” to “us.”
The second situation is less cliché but just as common: strong individual contributors transitioning to team or group roles in which their thinking must change their mindset from “me” to “us.” The very nature of a hierarchy is to have leaders in charge of larger groups of subordinates. Within that tiered structure, there are managers, teams, and individual contributors.
When an individual contributor is tapped to take on more responsibility, the change can be easy if they’re ready and capable of leading others. But for some the challenge is a greater leap. A successful individual contributor knows what he’s capable of, is able to complete his tasks on target and on time, and manages himself well. Broadening their role to be responsible for others and their work is foreign to them. They may not like telling others what to do, or even worse, take the reins of their new role too tightly and boss their colleagues to death. They like to do tasks themselves and aren’t comfortable sharing their work or delegating to others because it forces them to relinquish control (or they’re reluctant to accept it).
This is not to say that the person is selfish, but rather that they haven’t developed their ability to manage others or tapped into their leadership charisma.
How can you prevent The Peter Principle?
Don’t gamble with your talent management and promotions that you can side-step The Peter Principle. Instead take the time to ensure that you’re getting the right people in the right roles for you and for them.
1. Ensure that the person has the desire and inclination to be a leader. If they don’t have inclination, don’t force it on them, but rather create career paths to maximize their contribution and receive the recognition they crave.
And if they lack the desire to lead, don’t force it on them – they may be not ready or know inherently that they’re not suited for it. Some people are natural-born followers and are content to do so. Use assessments to help identify high-potential leaders at an early stage and help them develop so that when the opportunity to promote them arises, they’re ready and you’re confident in your decision.
2. Don’t assume that everyone knows how to lead. Especially for first-time managers, provide them with objective feedback and coaching early and often. If they easily transition into the role, then you can look forward to see how you can help them to broaden their skills and leadership repertoire to be ready for even bigger situations ahead. But most new managers would benefit from coaching rather than being thrown to the wolves only to discover that they’re failing miserably.
As was highlighted in the accompanying video, providing 360-degree feedback can highlight a leader’s shortcoming s and provide opportunities for them to improve their performance.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gb_fotos/273603327/sizes/m/in/photostream/
To learn firsthand how we can help you prevent your talent from falling victim to the Peter Principle, we invite you to test drive our Checkpoint360 assessment - 100% risk free.