The Peter Principle (Part 1 of 2)

By Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

           Many of us know (and possibly have worked for) someone who seems to have gotten one promotion too many. The Peter Principle holds that, in a hierarchy, competent people are promoted to the point where they are no longer competent, where they remain. For instance, a company might take a star researcher and promote him supervisor, where he fails. What usually happens is the star continues to rely on the skills and talents that made him successful in the last job, rather than recognizing that the new job requires fundamentally different skills and talents.

            This problem regularly happens when top technical performers are given leadership responsibility. Some manage the transition well, but many struggle because organizations often promote them as a reward for their technical accomplishments, rather than for their leadership potential (we will address how organizations can avoid this trap in a future article). If you or someone who works with you is in this position, we have some advice that has helped other leaders avoid the Peter Principle trap:

  1. Recognize your job has changed. We often think of leadership as almost a second career. While your technical skills and experience are valuable in leadership, they seldom hold the keys to being an effective leader. The ability to set direction, motivate people, and give feedback need to be developed to complement the technical skills you already have.
  2. Go to school. As Jennifer Joyce described in the accompanying interview, you should start reeducating yourself for your new job. You can buy books on leadership, look for role models, and attend seminars and training. Most sources will have some good ideas that you can use to shape your leadership style.
  3. Get help. Leading people is not easy. Fortunately, there are a lot of people who can help, if you know to ask. Your boss and your peers are generally a good place to start. They know you and your situation, and can often provide good ideas or at least a second opinion. You might also look for a mentor in the organization who has made the leadership transition successfully. Additionally, you might seek the guidance of a professional leadership coach to give you an unbiased third party perspective and help you focus on your development.
  4. Try new things. In order to make any of your learning work, you need to give it a try. Make an effort to put new things into practice on a regular basis. Also, don’t give up if something doesn’t seem to work the first or second time. You are unlikely to win the PGA Championship after just two trips to the driving range.
  5. Seek feedback. Make sure you are getting a steady diet of feedback from those around you about what is and isn’t working. Give people permission to give you feedback, help them focus feedback on things that will be impactful to you, and thank them for taking the time to give you the feedback.

Whatever you do, always remember that there is no magic bullet; many people will try to sell you the one right way to lead. In our book, the right way is the way that gets you the best results over time. So build a style that works for you.