Theories expounded in The Dilbert Principle, and that other legendary tome humorously highlighting why feckless people are promoted to roles they aren't suited for, are alive and well decades after they were first introduced to the business community. Yes, amusing reading...trouble is working for the individual who is promoted into something he can't handle...or being that individual...is no laughing matter. I frequently see risky promotions happen based on the premise that a judgment error "won't happen to us this time."
How can you avoid suffering the consequences laid out over forty years ago in The Peter Principle? This text contends that in a hierarchy, people are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. The book suggests that co-workers who haven't yet reached their level of incompetence are the ones who do the work for those who have. Finding ways to circumvent the effects of an incompetent manager leads to "managing upward" in order to maintain productivity and limit the damage done by the superiors' incompetence.
Here are two scenarios that support this Principle:
1. Promoting a top-producing information technology person or outstanding systems analyst to a managerial position.
2. Transitioning an individual contributor to a team leader or manager.
The First Miscalculation: Believing top performers have the necessary skills (or potential to develop them) to be promoted. Sadly, this problem persists, and it continues to be as obvious as watching a horror movie - the protagonist is about to open the door, behind which the monster lurks. "Don't go in there!" we think, but of course they go. Everyone knows it's wrong, but it happens anyway.
When people are good at what they do, it's natural to assume that they can continue to perform at higher levels, increasing their abilities and living up to the next stage of their potential. But what's often taken for granted is the belief that potential is limitless. Better to be aware that some people's natural abilities can only be developed so far. This is not to say that new skills and behaviors can't be learned or cultivated, but recognize when they're not yet present so that you don't promote too soon and risk failure.
You know the outcome: you not only lose your top ITperson, but you also lose productivity and momentum of the team while needing to search for, select, and onboard the failed manager's replacement. Lost expenditure can be significant.
The Second Miscalculation. Believing individual contributors can change from a "me" to "us" mindset. This second situation is just as common. The very nature of a hierarchy is to have leaders in charge of larger groups of subordinates. Within that tiered structure, there are managers, teams, and individual contributors. When an individual contributor is selected to take on more responsibility, the change can be easy if they're ready and capable of leading others. For some, the challenge is too great a leap.
A successful individual contributor knows what he's capable of, is able to complete his tasks on target and on schedule, and manages himself well. By expanding this person's responsibilities as an overseer for others and their work, you might be creating a "fish out of water" set-up for failure. They may not like telling others what to do, or even worse, take the reins of their new role too tightly and boss their colleagues to death. They like to do tasks themselves and aren't comfortable sharing their work or delegating to others because it forces them to relinquish control (or they're reluctant to accept control).
This is not to say that the person is selfish, but rather that they haven't developed their ability to manage others or tapped into their star quality as a leader.
So, how can you prevent The Peter Principle Promotion Syndrome?
- Don't take a chance on "possibly" winning. Speculation is risky. Take the time to ensure that you're getting the right people in the right roles for your sake and theirs.
- Avoid promoting someone who doesn't have the desire or inclination for the new role. If they don't have the tendency, don't force it on them. Instead, create career paths to maximize their talent and contribution so they can have the recognition they desire and genuinely deserve. They may not be ready, or they may know in their hearts that they're not suited for the role. Some people are natural-born followers and are content to do so. Use assessments to help identify high-potential leaders at an early stage and help them develop so that when the opportunity to promote them arises, they're ready and you're confident in your decision.
- Don't assume everyone knows how to lead. Especially for first-time managers, provide them with objective feedback and coaching early and often. If they easily transition into the role, then you can design ways to help them broaden their skills and leadership repertoire to be ready for even bigger situations ahead. There's no doubt that most new managers would benefit from coaching rather than being thrown to the wolves only to discover that they're failing miserably.
Along with "Total Person" predictive assessments, I have found that using multi-rater feedback can be an accurate way to better understand an individual's strengths and shortcomings. This strategy provides meaningful coaching opportunities for employees to improve their performance. It's a win for them and for their organization.
Over the years, I've learned that putting a square peg in a round hole is counterproductive for everyone. I hope I've given you some useful thoughts so you can avoid this no-win pitfall.