The Pitfalls of the Peter Principle
Recently, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a small group of friends on a perennial topic: incompetent bosses. When one of my friends wondered aloud how unqualified people end up in high-level positions, another replied, “That’s the Peter Principle for you!”
The Peter Principle was first identified by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, a sociologist and business consultant, in a 1968 book of the same title. The premise is simple: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” People who perform well in one position tend to get promoted, but their new role may require an entirely different set of skills. As long as they can adapt and succeed, they’ll keep climbing the ladder. But they will inevitably get promoted to a position they can’t handle. So long as they aren’t bad enough to get fired, they’ll remain in a position of powerful incompetence.
The Peter Principle is often cited to explain someone else’s incompetence. We hold up this principle as proof that people eventually find their level of incompetence as if that’s an inevitable flaw in the system.
But last time I checked, everything I’ve learned to do, I started as a complete novice. You could say that I was incompetent at writing—before I learned how to write. (You might say I’m still incompetent. That’s a matter of opinion).
The Peter Principle describes a NORMAL part of human development. When somebody proves their ability to perform well, to learn, and adapt, they are rewarded with new responsibilities. But in some hierarchies, there isn’t a safe and strategic path for development. As people rise in the food chain, expectations increase, but often without a corresponding increase in support. They may be perfectly capable of performing well with proper help, but on their own they flounder. They become an example of the Peter Principle. They are assumed to be incompetent.
My latest podcast with Ralph Simone, one of my business partners, was titled “Everyone is Incompetent.” We came to the conclusion that no one is ready for their next promotion. And we include ourselves in this “everyone.” But when leaders truly believe their employees are ready for their next promotion, they should trust their intuition.
Nobody’s perfect. Some employees may not be fully ready for the responsibilities you give them. When leaders embrace trust and “take the training wheels off,” it cultivates the safety and empowerment necessary to stimulate improved engagement, faster learning, and enhanced organizational performance. And as an added benefit, it can provide relief for overburdened leaders.
Ask yourself: who could use some strategic development in your organization? How could you allow them to try their hand at leadership while supporting them with thoughtful guidance, coaching and mentorship? How about yourself? How can you request the investment you deserve so you can be ready for more responsibility? What steps can you take to lean into taking safer risks in your learning?
And if you drive a culture in your organization, consider how you might help others to see that everyone, in certain areas, is incompetent! That’s a good thing for growth, innovation and pushing the envelope. If you want to learn how to scale your leadership by embracing temporary incompetency, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.