Beware of the Peter Principle

Careers  Learning
16 January, 2017

With the right approach, a potentially incompetent manager can turn out to be a success

The bumbling boss who fumbles and blusters his way through life in the office is an enduring caricature across popular culture, from television series like The Office to the Dilbert comic strip in the daily newspaper. Behind this stereotype lies some truth. Let’s admit it: each of us has worked with at least one (if not more) incompetent manager during our career. In 1969, Laurence J. Peter tried to explain this phenomenon in his book, The Peter Principle, a satire presented as serious business research. Peter revealed the “root cause” of managerial ineptitude: competent people are promoted up till the point where they are no longer competent.

To put it another way, people are generally promoted based on their performance in their current role—instead of the capabilities that would be relevant in the intended role. Therefore, they keep being promoted until they are no longer able to perform effectively—at which point they stop being promoted and get stuck in a job they cannot do well. Their incompetence is unlikely to get them fired or demoted unless it really stands out; instead, people begin to work around them. Essentially, such people end up one rung higher than their ideal level. And that is how “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”, a concept referred to as the Peter Principle.

So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how to avoid falling into the trap of the Peter Principle.

While I don’t think that any research has been done to prove this management principle, anecdotally at least, most people acknowledge that it is at least partially true. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, and is still in print today, 48 years later—a testament to how deeply it resonates with its readers.

Needless to say, all managers who hold their positions for a long time are not inept. Some may choose to stay on due to personal preferences, while others may need to wait for a position to open up in the hierarchy before they can rise in the organisation. However, we have all probably seen managers who make us wonder: how on earth did they get promoted in the first place? Peter answers this question for us: because they were great at their previous job.

While the book makes for a hilarious read, this mismatch between an individual’s ability and the role’s requirements has serious repercussions—for the person, their team, and the organisation.

A manager who is out of their depth is likely to feel constantly stressed, unfulfilled, anxious and unhappy, while the team’s performance will certainly falter under the leadership of a less-than-ready boss. The organisation sustains a double loss: they lose a competent team member and gain an inept manager. That is a worrying trade-off!

Whether as individuals or as an organisation, we can take a number of steps to minimise the chances of the Peter Principle playing out.

How to beat the Peter Principle, as a new or recently promoted leader:

1. Acknowledge the change

We have a tendency to stick with what we know works well—even if the context has shifted. When you are promoted, you walk into your new role with certain notions based on your success in your previous role. No doubt, some of these valuable lessons will serve you well; however, it’s also important to recognise that many of your previous mantras may be irrelevant and new ones must take their place. Noted coach and author Marshall Goldsmith said it so well: “what got you here won’t get you there”. Your delusions could become a serious liability to change. Learn to unlearn and relearn.

For instance, when you work in an individual role, your success may depend on your attention to detail, the ability to persevere, and long hours spent following up with people. However, if you adopt the exact same approach after being promoted to larger role which involves leading a team, you are headed for disaster. Your leadership style may well end up being marked by micro-management, nit-picking and isolation. Rather, your attention must expand to include communication, empowerment, collaboration and managing team dynamics—these may be at the heart of the new job. While your previous detail-oriented approach and deep functional expertise will continue to be a huge asset, they may no longer be the primary focus. A promotion usually means that new abilities and skills are required; the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can begin to grow into our new role.

2. Be a lifelong student

Kickstart the process of learning what you need in order to be effective at your new job. Don’t wait for someone else to initiate the process; be proactive and take matters into your own hands. To upskill or educate yourself, sign up for a course or approach your manager and ask for training and coaching recommendations. It could even be something as simple as reading more to familiarise yourself with a new skill, such as how to give constructive feedback or how to motivate your team.

If you’re not entirely sure of certain aspects of your new job, approach your direct superior, your predecessor or a trusted senior colleague. Many people hesitate to ask questions because they think it makes them look incompetent, but nothing could be farther from the truth. What does make one look foolish is the insistence on doing something the wrong way because of their reluctance to check in.

3. Talk to your team

Listen very carefully to your new team members, and ask pertinent questions. Remember, they know more about how this team works than you, and you may gain valuable insights through conversation. Plus, leadership is a lot about motivating and influencing people and getting the best out of your team; for this, it is imperative that you get to know them—their talents, aspirations, needs and opinions.

When you invest time in learning the inner workings and concerns of a team, you signal your commitment to the team’s success—and earn their respect in the process. In her article, Overcoming the Peter Principle: 5 Tips for First-Time Managers, Angelita Williams points out the importance of waiting for the team to endorse and confer authority on the new leader.

“This is perhaps the most important lesson any person new to managing should learn. While someone above you has deemed it appropriate to leave you in charge of a handful of people, the people you will be working with on a daily basis probably had no say in the decision. Even if you are technically above them on the hierarchical ladder, you do not truly become a leader until your employees see you as one. It is absolutely essential to…gain respect from your colleagues before they’ll listen to you.”

4. Course correct, if you need to

News flash: not everyone wants to be or loves being a senior leader. If, after taking all of these steps, you still find yourself struggling, ask yourself a few questions: Do I really want to be a leader? Do I find this job rewarding? Do the pros outweigh the cons? All in all, do I prefer this role over my previous position? If you find yourself answering “no” to some of these questions, you may want to consider switching back to your last job. Admittedly, this may sound like a hard pill to swallow for most people as our egos come in the way. However, it is important to be clear on what makes you thrive and be happy.

Often, people enjoy one type of work more than another. For example, you may be deeply interested in interacting with front-line team members and a promotion may put a lot of distance between you and them. Or you might be passionate about the technical details, whereas climbing the managerial ladder generally means spending more time on people management. In such a case, stepping down would no doubt increase your job satisfaction and motivation. You may also simply want to take one step back from the limelight and become the deputy rather than the leader. Being a successful deputy demands its own unique skills and enjoys many advantages: more opportunity to experiment, greater flexibility, less public scrutiny, and less isolation. Richard Hytner, who voluntarily stepped down from being CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, explains the logic behind this move in his book, Consiglieri: Leading From the Shadows:

“I was rarely happy making the big, ugly decisions, yet really happy influencing the cause…so I decided to become a deputy instead of an all-singing, all-dancing, all-deciding chief executive. Being second became my first choice.”

How to beat the Peter Principle, as an organisation:

As an organisation that prides itself on people, we must ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to ensure that recently promoted leaders are able to do their jobs effectively.

1. When deciding whom to promote, do we focus enough on assessing both performance and potential?

One way of overcoming the Peter Principle that companies (including us) are trying to do, is to evaluate people based on both performance and potential. However, this approach is still not that robust. It is far easier to assess someone on their current job performance, rather than future potential, which requires a deeper, more nuanced approach.

As Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, senior adviser at Egon Zehnder, in a Harvard Business Review interview, The Future of Talent Is Potential, says:

“We are living in this VUCA world– volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. And when things change so much, even if you look for the perfect competency feat, which is the current state of the art for talent management, that won’t be enough. Because what brought you here won’t even allow you to stay here, because the world changes so much, and jobs change so much.”

So, on the performance front, when deciding whom to promote, we need to look beyond current job performance at the qualities needed to succeed at the next level. Does the person have the right temperament, skills and cognitive abilities to handle these new responsibilities? And does she show the necessary potential? Fernández-Aráoz identifies five key elements as determinants of potential—a blend of fierce commitment with  humility, curiosity, insight, engagement and resilience.

A promotion is warranted only if the answer to these questions is “yes”, or if we feel confident that the person can learn the required skills. It’s also important to not promote someone for making “a good effort”. This is a lose-lose situation: the person will be out of depth and become unhappy, while the organisation will suffer the consequences of an unsuitable leader.

2. Do we adequately prepare and support new leaders during and after the transition?

Leigh Steere, co-owner of Managing People Better LCC, believes that human beings can learn anything:

“I personally do not believe in the Peter Principle. The field of neurolinguistic programming says that any behaviour/skill can be learned. In other words, if a person does not already know how to do something, he/she can be taught.”

To a great degree, I believe this to be true: training and mentoring go a long way in equipping people for their new responsibilities. The process should ideally begin before they take on their titles; for instance, they could shadow the current person and attend coaching programs that focus on relevant skills. Afterwards, a mentor can keep a watch on them, stepping in if and when required with guidance. With the right support, a case of potential Peter’s Principle may turn out to be a resounding success! Note though that people really need to have the right growth mindset – a fixed mindset can become a big impediment.

3. Do we have tailored opportunities for our functional experts?

In his article, The Peter Principle, Rik Nemanick points out the dilemma faced by many functional experts in the corporate world—and how to address this:

“The biggest flaw in many corporate career paths is found in the fact that the only way for top performers to advance is through accepting leadership roles. Many of our clients have recognized the pitfalls in this approach and have designed technical career ladders that mirror the leadership ladders in pay and prestige. These technically skilled performers are allowed to progress as internal consultants and teachers without direct reports, satisfying the need for career progress and recognition without turning a good technical performer into a bad leader.”

At Godrej, too, we must make a concerted effort to reimagine career paths in such a way that our functional experts can continue to grow and give us their best without getting pulled down by responsibilities that go against their strengths and intrinsic style of working. In our R&D and Design team for instance, we have created specialist functional career tracks for people to continue to progress and be recognised. We have to do this more systematically for our other functions as well.

Even as you think about the Peter Principle, I would like to leave you with what F. John Reh said:

“Before you give up on someone as a walking example of the Peter Principle, make sure you’ve done everything you can to help them succeed at their new level. Training, mentoring, and good leadership may be all they need to once again become a competent, rising star in your organization.”

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.


  • amit kumar says:

    Very well written and gives food for thought. We experience it daily and still do not take any decision on this. Look forward to implement learnings from here

    Thanks for writing such a beautiful insight.

  • Dominic Musyoka says:

    This is quite elaborated and an essential tool for the top managers in an organization to better the organization’s performance while growing the participants to a higher potential. Well said and very encouraging, Vivek.


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