Avoiding the Peter Principle, HR’s #1 foe

by External30 Mar 2015
“Managers rise to their level of incompetence” - so says the Peter Principle. Is there anything employers can do to avoid their employees falling into this deadly trap? Angus Gill suggest there is - and it's not as difficult as you might think.

Incompetent managers – HR’s biggest headache. How exactly do employees rise to such high ranks if they aren’t up to the job, and why on Earth does it seem to happen so often?

The problem is often the result of an employee being promoted based on his or her excellent track record in the position they currently hold. They move up the ladder and eventually are given a role that just cannot fulfil. This is not necessarily because the role is more difficult, but rather because it is asking for a different skill set.

Here’s an example: A talented and inspiring teacher is promoted to head of year or department, a position that requires greater managerial and paper-based skills, as well as liaising with a range of stakeholders. The teacher excels in working directly with children, but lacks crucial organisational and communication skills, so struggles to fulfil his new role competently. This does not mean he is not still a competent employee, but rather that he has been promoted into a role outside of his skillset.

This is known as the Peter Principle, named after Laurence J. Peter who co-authored the book with Raymond Hull - The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. He termed the phrase “managers rise to their level of incompetence”, explaining that they then stop being promoted further while causing a bottleneck for other employees looking to move up the ranks. This can lead to feelings of frustration from other employees, as the managers may feel threatened and intimated.

Keeping Peter at his desk
The negative impact on general morale, organisation and production can be far reaching, so formatting strategies to prevent this happening should be implemented. The methods you employ will depend on your type and size of business, as well as your overall policies, but consider some of the following:

Provide parallel career paths
Many employees will automatically accept a promotion, as it is the only way to achieve extra pay and perks. Recognising an employee for an excellent job well done can increase their sense of worth while still satisfying their pocket. Staying in the job at which they excel will increase your overall productivity and profit more than an unsuitable promotion.

Many employees don’t care about the title and prestige that goes with a promotion; they are more interested in being recognised for their work and advancing their career, and often a promotion is the only method of achieving that. If you can find a way to promote them by giving them more responsibilities that suit their skillset, it will be more valuable for both your business and the employee in question.

Training first
If an employee shows promise in a current role, offer her training for the next role up prior to promotion. This will often show their competence in the future role before it is awarded. If they feel they are not suitable, an alert employee will often speak up at this stage, before any future commitments are made.

Chase the shadow
If you are considering an employee for promotion, allow them to shadow a person in the position for a period of time. This will help provide evidence of their capabilities, plus allow them time to discover if it is the right role for them.

“Up and out”
This principle, which stems from the Armed Forces, states that if employees are not promoted within a set number of years above certain levels, they are thought to lack competence and are liable to be dismissed. However, if using this strategy, you need to be careful you don’t lose staff who excel at their own role, even if they won’t advance.

Eye up your managers
Track the progress and results of your employees and keep observing them – and be sure to keep an eye on those who have already been promoted to a managerial level. Managers can resent staff on their teams who shake up the organisation, and may unwittingly hold them back. Keep your eye on everyone so that nobody slips through the net. If you need to intervene, so be it. You will soon see who has the desire and ability to lead and move forward.

Talking comes up trumps
Communicating with your employees is a sure-fire way to find out who genuinely is seeking promotion because they fully believe themselves capable, and those who just see it as the natural progression. Run regular appraisals and encourage your staff to speak up and be honest, with no fear of recrimination.

Be honest to them regarding the level of responsibility, hours and commitment that comes with a promotion, and what you would expect from them. Give them the opportunity to consider it honestly and without worrying about the consequences of saying no. Let them know there are other opportunities in the pipeline, if that is indeed the case.

Changing the goalpost always causes unrest. Having an effective strategy in place for promotion and advancement will save hours of frustration, de-motivation and loss of profits. Make possible career paths clear to your staff from the onset, and Peter can hopefully remain at the desk most suitable to him.

About the author
Angus Gill is a Sydney-based marketing and management professional with over 7 years’ experience in business strategy, communications and scalability. Angus specialises in the relationship between sales, marketing and management with a primary focus on how technology and people act as a binding agent for strategy while influencing the business funnel. He currently works as the Group Marketing Manager for Saxons Group.