Fight the Peter Principle: How to Avoid Bad Promotions Share:

Steve Williamson, Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.
Monday, January 17, 2022
Fight the Peter Principle: How to Avoid Bad Promotions

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Tags: #ThePeterPrinciple #promotions #hiring

Hiring the wrong person for the role has obvious costs. What about promoting someone above their level of competency? That can cost even more because this often puts them into a position of authority — or greater authority — over others. And what is the number one reason people quit their jobs?

Bad bosses.

The Peter Principle states that "...people in a hierarchy tend to rise to 'a level of respective incompetence': employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another." 1

An individual has proven they are good at what they do so we promote them as a reward, and hopefully the company benefits from it in the process. The rub is that promotion often entails new or expanded responsibilities and it also frequently includes a required and important new set of skills: management.

Doing a thing is a different skill set than managing people that do that thing.

Someone can be:

  1. great at doing the thing
  2. managing people who do the thing, or
  3. both.

Someone can also be good at none of it. Have you ever known someone who got their job simply because they were related to the Big Boss?

What about seniority?

Seniority is a touchy subject, especially when it comes to promotions. Rick says, "I've been here four years longer than Tamara yet she got promoted to Team Lead and I didn't. That's not fair!"

What if Tamara has education, prior experience, and the psychometric profile of an effective manager and Rick does not?

Seniority is a terrible reason to promote someone on its own merit without other more important factors being considered. If you are under a union or other contract that mandates promotions based solely on seniority, your hands are unfortunately tied.

Seniority is not the same as experience.

It is important to note that seniority is not necessarily the same as experience. Someone can have ten years of industry experience as a machinist but only two years seniority within your company. If they are competing for a promotion against a co-worker who only has six years of experience but all of it was spent at your company, that co-worker would have more seniority but less experience.

Which candidate would be the better choice for promotion?

This is a trick question because we don't yet have enough information about the two candidates to make that determination. Their psychometric profile and their skills relevant to the new position, not their current position, are what matter.

What a candidate can do for you the day after their promotion is more important than what they did the day before.

Fight the Peter Principle

Fight the Peter Principle by promoting people based on skill set and psychometric profile.

This highlights the need to use the proper tools when evaluating which team member gets moved up into the new role. It really is no different than evaluating a role and then screening external candidates for a new hire, except in this case your candidates are internal and are already part of the team.

Promoting based on seniority is a form of chronological bias.

The only time seniority should be the deciding factor in a promotion is when you have narrowed your candidate pool down to two individuals with identical skills, experience and aptitude for the new role and you have no other relevant factors to differentiate one from another.

In that extremely rare case, promote the internal candidate with more seniority.

Otherwise, leave seniority out of the equation. It adds nothing of value.

The stakes are high.

Promotion is often used as a reward, but it can end up bringing more stress and unhappiness upon the promoted employee than they anticipated.

This is where the Peter Principle kicks in.

Let's look at an example. Charlene has been a machinist for Acme Tool Company for six years and has been the top performer in the role. She loves her job and she's damned good at it. A supervisory position opens up and she's first on the list to get promoted.

She takes the new position along with its added responsibilities. She now manages the day shift crew and spends only 10 hours a week doing the machining work she loves and 30+ hours a week handling management and reporting duties. Her engagement goes down and the team's overall performance suffers.

Perhaps someone on the team quits after six months because of it.

The Peter Principle has struck again. Charlene is a very competent and capable person, but every role is unique and demands its own set of skills and psychometric profile. Charlene has the skills and profile to be an outstanding machinist, but not the psychometric profile of a manager.

Before that promotion occurred, Charlene should have been evaluated for the supervisory position based on the needs of that position, not Charlene's track record in her current role. A Top Performer Profile by eRep or other tool to evaluate the psychometric requirements of the supervisor position should be conducted, the necessary skills and educational requirements identified, and internal candidates evaluated based on those requirements.

A promotion decision should be made based on those factors. If it turns out that none of the existing staff meet those requirements, then the role should be filled by an outside candidate and not via an internal promotion. An alternative is to move someone sideways into the role from another part of the company, but that evaluation and decision process is the same as a promotion consideration.

This point deserves to be repeated because the stakes are so high if you get it wrong:

Fill a role based on what the candidate can do the day after the promotion, not what they have done the day before.



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Steve Williamson

Steve Williamson

Innovator/Banker - Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.

Steve has a career in information technology, software development, and project management spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (, and when he isn't writing he is an aspiring multi-instrumentalist and composer, a virtual pilot in a home-built flight simulator, and a cyclist.

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