Rising to Your Level of Incompetence

A promotion can be disastrous. Be aware of the Peter Principle.

By Charles Waldo

During 40 years of college teaching and management consulting I built up quite a holding of books of many types. No book got pitched as long as it could be squeezed on a shelf or stacked someplace. Recently, while “weeding” in preparation for moving to a smaller home, I “re-discovered” two excellent books that warranted re-reading: The Peter Principle:  Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969), and The Peter Prescription: How To Make Things Go Right (1972), both by Dr. Laurance J. Peter.*  

Each takes a light-hearted, satirical look at a serious issue that arises in all areas of organization life:  failure after a promotion.  A sales manager gets fired after years of success as an individual contributor.  A professor doesn’t make it as department chair or dean after years of brilliant teaching.  Pastors are cut loose from their latest and largest church after five previous successes.   Professional baseball players start in Little League and for years fight their way up the baseball “food chain,” finally make it to the Big Show, but don’t stick. The phenomenon is everywhere.

Getting “Peterized”

“In a Hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of Incompetence.”

What do you think?  Is The Peter Principle often true?   Does an employee’s competence in the current job lead to promotions into higher level jobs until he gets into a job he cannot perform well (isn't competent), then gets “buried,” terminated, or quits?  Have you seen this phenomenon acted out?  Have you been “Peterized” or know others who have?  I was once.

Back in the early-70’s most of the managers in the company I was with felt The Peter Principle was truer than we wanted to admit. A serious example was the loss rate in our national field sales force, which was about 50% in the first two years of a customer service rep (the usual source for new salesmen) being promoted into the field. We tagged that “getting Peterized.”   If they survived the first two years, they usually lasted many more. This 50% incompetency rate also applied to successful field salesmen promoted to district sales manager. Qualities that made them successful (competent) salesmen were not sufficient or appropriate for successful sales management.

This attrition rate was very costly, in both human and financial terms. So we took Dr. Peters’ Prescriptions seriously, asked lots of questions similar to those shown below, made changes, and cut the failure rate to about 10% in two years.


Peter Principle Questions

If you believe the Peter Principle – In almost any hierarchical organization (and most organizations are hierarchical)  an employee will continue to rise until he/she reaches his/her level of incompetence – is valid, do you just assume this phenomenon can’t be prevented or will you try to slow or eliminate the failure rate? If it’s the latter, here are some questions to ward off being “Peterized” if you are being considered for a promotion. With just slight variation these questions can be used by a manager in the process of evaluating a competent employee for a promotion, especially if it’s something very different from what she is now doing.

  1. The Performance Predictor Principle: One’s future performance on the job is generally best predicted by one’s current and past performance – good or bad. The more similar the old, current, and new situations, the more likely the same kind of performance will be repeated.
  2. Know Thyself and To Thyself Be True: What are your best skills?  What do you do really well?  What do you like best and like to do most on your present job? What skills are your least best? What don’t you like to do? Don’t kid yourself.
  3. Know the prospective job and incumbent: What skills and experiences are required?   How do these match with what you have now?  How can you overcome shortfalls?  What has caused the incumbent to succeed (or fail)?  Can you job shadow or temporarily try it out to get a feel for it before committing? What training will be available?
  4. The Bosses – How well do you and your present boss get along? Why? What do you know about your likely new boss? How alike are they? What is her reputation? And how about your new co-workers? What is the culture? How like your current team?
  5. Turnover – What is the reputation of the prospective job? A potential pathway to additional promotions or a career killer?  If a newly created position, how risky? What might happen if you turn down the promotion? Will there be other opportunities or will you be stuck where you are?
  6. Why are you considering this move? More money?  To escape stagnation?  To learn new skills?  Job/title prestige? Break away from present boss? Are there “red flags?” What if it doesn’t work out? Are you gone from the organization?
  7. Compensation – Going to almost any new job carries risks and, probably, new stresses and strains. It should carry a compensation increase. Will it be enough to offset the risks? How will your performance be measured and rewarded as time goes on?
  8. Your outside life – How might this promotion affect your marriage, family, and non-work life? What if a relocation is required? Uprooting issues?  Is the timing right? (It will probably never be perfect.) Take the family factor into consideration VERY carefully and seriously.

Don’t get Peterized

Ask lots of questions of as many people as you can.   Remember, the more unlike the new situation is to the one you are now successful in, the higher the odds of failure...getting “Peterized.”  Sometimes it’s better to say, “No thanks, the timing is not right” or something similar than jump into a high risk situation. Continue to do great work where you are but then find ways to get ready to seize the next opportunity….maybe in your present organization, maybe elsewhere. Good luck! 

*Dr. Laurance Peter, deceased in1990, was a long-time university educator, holding a Ph.D. in Education from Washington State University. His first book,  The Peter Principle,  was turned down by 30 publishers before finally being accepted by Morrow. Just a few years after its publication in 1969, NINE MILLION copies had been sold, in 38 languages. The Peter Prescription followed in 1972 and also enjoyed considerable sales success.They apparently struck more  responsive chords in the “real world” than with new manuscript evaluators. So much for publishers’ market knowledge.