The Peter Principle: Managers Rise To The Level Of Their Incompetence

The Peter Principle: Managers Rise To The Level Of Their Incompetence

People will rise to the level of their incompetence.

The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter in which the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and "managers rise to the level of their incompetence."

Let me give you a few examples.

The best nurse doesn’t make the best charge nurse. Just because she is the best at starting IVs, bedside care, and leads organically within the hospital unit, doesn’t mean she will make a good title holder. Their are more interpersonal skills and diplomacy that take place with being the manager. Technical skills don't equal leadership skills.

Now, as a hirer, this doesn’t give you the leeway to throw incompetent people out with the bathwater. “Oh they’re the worst manager ever, fire them."

No, your incompetent manager may have skill sets that need to be reassigned and reviewed.

Another example would be elevating the best software engineer to a managerial role. His skills are fantastic with written words and communication about backend systems and code, but when he must run a weekly standup meeting, he’s the worst leader ever. It might be because his verbal communication skills are lacking and he’s an introvert who’s hopeless in terms of speaking in front of people.

He’s a terrible manager because that’s the level of his incompetence. Don’t fire him, reassign him to a role in which he can use his analytical brain and engineering skills most effectively.

Things to watch out for in a company's hierarchal system:

  • Incompetent managers will strive to protect the hierarchy at all costs. They will look to blame and fire those around them that are revealing their incompetence.
  • You must remove the risk of hire and fire and encourage a culture of reassignment and finding everyone’s best fit. The caveat here is if they are doing things that are immoral or against company culture, then definitely fire. But avoid firing if their level of incompetence has been reached when the person was previously successful in their prior role.
  • Some of the fastest scaling companies in the world have done away with convoluted hierarchies that create incompetence throughout. Many startups help new hires to find their fit and work within product teams. There’s inherent ownership of the job in this structure and enables each person to rise to their level of incompetence naturally—then moves teams if necessary.

What to do if you’ve risen to the level of your incompetence?

  • Are you lacking an acquired skill? Read blogs, books and seek mentorship to fill that void.
  • Are you in the wrong role completely? Work with your leadership and team to find a new fit.
  • Are you completely incompetent in everything you do? You’re probably not reading this…
  • Don’t fret, be the best you can be in the capacity you’re in and you can work to expand the level of your competency.

If you’re looking to hire, remember the Peter principle and don’t hire on future skill sets. Hire based on the candidate's current level of competency.

(photo via chris jl)