How to Avoid Promoting People Who Reach Their Level of Incompetence

Understanding the Peter Principle

In his 1968 book The Peter Principle, Dr. Laurence J. Peter formulated the principle that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This pertains to the level of competence of the human resources in a hierarchical organization, and explains the upward, downward, and lateral movement of personnel within the hierarchy. 

This can be applied in an organization to assess the potential of an employee for promotion as, according to the principle, employees are eventually promoted to their highest level of competence, after which this level can also be viewed as their ‘level of incompetence’ with respect to further promotion. It may also be considered that the employee does not possess the skills required for promotion to the next higher-ranking position. 

I believe, based on years of observation, that there are certain drivers or reasons whereby a person reaches his or her own level of incompetence, and that these drivers emerge out of three major areas.

I believe, based on years of observation, that there are certain drivers or reasons whereby a person reaches his or her own level of incompetence, and that these drivers emerge out of three major areas.

The first of these is that the individual has decided to move on. There could be various reasons for this -- either the person has not found the correct fit in the organization, or he has grown tired or bored of it, or has been there too long. The second reason is that they take things too personally. When something goes wrong, they are always trying to defend or justify it at a very personal level. This needs to be differentiated from taking some accountability, which means being aware of one’s actions, taking ownership, and then reacting to them. Personalization, on the other hand, finds the person being very defensive, unreceptive or even hostile to sources of feedback, and basically becoming unapproachable. 

The third reason for reaching one’s level of incompetence is refusal to listen or to learn, to register what is happening, or to sense the vibes of the environment, despite receiving information, or by just failing to act on the information. These people are so stuck in their ivory towers that all sensory signals and feedback about their performance fail to penetrate.

So what are some of the reasons that might cause a person to reach their level of incompetence as defined in The Peter Principle? As you go through your career, make sure you do not reach this level, which bars you from further progress in your chosen field. To achieve this, keep the following checklist in mind:

  • Do I want to be in this job a year from now? If your answer is yes, the first reason automatically becomes invalid where you are concerned.
  • Can I think of three examples where I realized or was told by someone that I was taking things too personally? If your answer is yes, you need to view your job with caution and see how you can detach yourself a bit.
  • When was the last time that I felt truly wonderful when I was told something by someone about my job that was not necessarily positive, or something new I learned on the job greatly energized and excited me? If your answer is “within the last two weeks,” you’re in good shape. If it is over six months, then you need to seriously think about where you are with respect to the Peter Principle and whether you are in the right job.

The three drivers of the Peter Principle -- the individual deciding to move on, starting to take things too personally, and refusing to listen or learn -- are often interpreted as signs of "poor performance." Yet there is a further element of the Peter Principle that addresses the person's capacity to cope with increasing challenges as their job role changes. 

This says their capacity to cope with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, decisions involving high stakes, and knotty political dilemmas may simply have become exhausted. Or they may have run out of the resilience to handle such conflicting demands.

As job roles require more long-term and strategic decisions, present increasingly messy issues, and the person is only able to judge the effectiveness of decisions taken today far into the future, the demands of the role may have exceeded the supply of the person's capacity to cope. Thus the high-performing bus driver is turned into a low-performing bus depot manager. The top consultant or salesperson becomes a mediocre and unhappy business unit manager or sales manager.

And the Peter Principle can also work in reverse, if we take into account the individual's capacity to learn a role quickly. 

People gifted with very high learning capacity show the same signs of frustration, defensiveness and general poor performance as those unable to cope due to a shortfall in capacity. The fast learner, if denied development at the right pace, stagnates. In this case the organization either uses the person's talent or loses it.

To enable organizations to deal with these issues at an organizational level rather than at an individual one, the key is measurement -- not only of performance, but of capacity. 

How do we identify those who will perform well at which level of competence? At what level of challenge will people present themselves as high performers, without being exposed to the discomfort and embarrassment of a "level of incompetence?" How can organizations avoid such promotions or subtle role changes? 

Thankfully, IBM Kenexa has a number of tools which aid such measurement. Under the current High Stakes initiatives, there is increasing emphasis on the means to avoid the Peter Principle pitfalls.

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