Promoting great workers to incompetence: How to avoid the mistake, and make better team decisions to nourish and protect talent.
"In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."
- Dr Laurence J. Peter
The sociologist, lecturer, and business consultant coined this concept in 1968 and it's since been widely accepted as a common occurrence. Of course, that is not to say that everyone in every organisation will eventually become incompetent... simply that promotion comes from great success, which will happen until you're no longer able to further impress above your station.
An enthusiastic, sociable worker may excel as a member of a PR street team. The skills to succeed here involve creating great rapport with the public, boundless energy, and a fun disposition that leaves positive impacts on all the people they meet.
As they continue to impress, a supervisor position becomes available in the team, and as they're the strongest team member they're awarded the position.
However, as a supervisor, they flounder due to no organisational skills. Having never managed people before, they fail to intuitively lead the team effectively. Also, as their role has changed from participating to supervising, their previous high impact is suddenly lost from the team—causing results to dip.
The Top-Down Problem.
A major pitfall, is that in traditional organisations utilising top-down management structures, the skill path doesn't flow naturally upwards. What we mean by that, is that the person at the top of the organisation usually can't do everything that those beneath them can do, and vice versa.
Hard work should be rewarded, and keeping key team members is often vital for long term success, but badly planned promotions can be just as costly. You effectively still lose a team member from a particular role.
Not everyone is a manager.
Not everyone adopts a growth mindset.
And not everyone is ready for extra, or new, responsibility.
Best Promotion Practises.
At Mäd, we tend not to shy away from taking strong stances. We value individuals that are hungry to learn and progress, and we believe great work reaps rewards.
So, to help empower team members but avoid promoting to incompetence, we have brainstormed some strategies.
As a Team Member.
Firstly, employees aiming for promotions need to be aware of the next step. Excelling in your current role will undoubtably raise confidence, but it's advantageous to become aware of what progression would look like—and what it will entail. This could be as simple as outlining some KPIs for you to meet.
Asking to aid your immediate line manager with their tasks is a good way to understand what they do on a day-to-day basis. It'll impress them and make their life easier, which will also fast track your potential for promotion. The key here, is having foresight into what additional responsibilities and task you may be given at a higher level.
Having a candid conversation with any bosses about the next steps is key too. Rather than guessing what would be required of you, simply ask and show desire to learn. By taking the time to build up additional skills before a promotion is available, you'll reduce the risks of being unprepared.
Knowing when to say 'No' is useful too. If you love what you do, and do it well, be aware that promotions may mean giving up that job security and enjoyment. There are many ways to progress your career, so be confident and map out your own route. Ensure that you are able to follow a path that makes sense for what you want to do.
As a Manager.
If you're considering promoting a team member, clearly outline the role they'd be stepping in to. Assess how easily their current position and workload will be to fill, and whether the switch of their position will be both beneficial for them and your organisation.
Try to be objective, and consider whether you'd hire them for the higher position had they never worked at your company. Obviously the key understanding of your organisation will be advantageous, but this point refers to their skillset.
Offer an internal interview for any potential promotions. This would be structured the same as an external interview would, so the team member will supply an up to date CV and discuss their suitability formally with key decision makers. We often issue test briefs in interviews, which allows us to gain practical insight of how they'd approach typical tasks for the position in question.
Solving Peter's Principle.
Ultimately, we can't always know how a person will perform in any given situation at any given time due to vast variables. Undoubtedly promotion to incompetence will continue to occur at some point or another, but when it happens it need not end in a quick termination of employment and returning to the drawing board!
Here are some strategies to avoid Peter's Principle having a negative impact on organisations:
Probation periods are great to reverse bad decisions, but getting demoted almost always feels like a failure and may lead to a disheartened or bitter employee. Demotion policies can be implemented and discussed transparently at the time of promotion, to very carefully remove the stigma of failure and provide a safety net for the employee (and company).
It's important here for the hiring manager to be upfront and honest, admitting mistake if a demotion needs to occur. The transparency will help office relations, and sweep away some of the awkwardness parcelled with demotions.
Many people seek promotion due to the prestige and higher salary that accompany lucrative titles. If a person is performing extremely well, then rewarding them through a higher salary may make more sense than putting them in to a different role.
This is also advantageous because you're not necessarily requiring them to take on additional responsibility or tasks (and the risks that come with the Peter Principle), but you're securing their talent and happiness for longer.
Happier teams lead to happier (better) output!
Dr. Peter suggests using 'lateral arabesque' to move incompetent team members to more suitable roles. The concept may seem mildly deceptive, as he suggests reassigning them to a position with a longer title yet fewer responsibilities.
This is an excellent suggestion in place of demotion, as you can retain some key talent and output from a team member without them realising they've been fired from the role they were promoted to.
PR Street Team Member. (Original member)
PR Supervisor. (Incompetent position in a management role)
Communications Officer. (Reassigned to PR Street team plus minor admin tasks, no management)
Being told that the probation period has led to an exciting discovery—that their talents will be best suited under a different position—is a great way to turn a negative (failed intended role probation) into a positive.
Perhaps the best method of avoiding the Peter Principle, is to have a better hiring process. 'Culture fit' and 'Culture add' come in to play here, as you're looking to have like-minded individuals that know their expectations and skills, and also understand their capabilities.
The transparency of an aligned team should allow for hiring managers and team members to have candid conversations about potential promotions, ensuring wrong decisions decrease.
The new duties that accompany a promotion should be clear, so that an employee can assess whether or not they are capable of delivering what is expected.
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