The Peter Principle Is Alive and Well & Killing Employees and Organizations

The Peter Principle Is Alive and Well & Killing Employees and Organizations

Does your organization have a Manager/Team Leader/Executive suffering from the effects of The Peter Principle?

The symptoms:

They are a competent employee who has been promoted, based on past superior performance in a former job, into a position they don’t have the required skill set(s) to perform and have reached their “level of incompetence.” This means they are lingering in limbo, unable to meet expectations–no matter how hard they try–until they ultimately crash and burn to the detriment of themselves, their Team and their organization.


Laurence J. Peter–who developed The Peter Principle 40 years ago–states that, “[i]n time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” and that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”


Unfortunately, The Peter Principle survives in today’s work environments with the same devastating impact on individual employees, their Teams, Team Mates and their organizations that it produced 40 years ago.

Within one year 25 percent of the newly promoted return to their former positions or leave the organization, now convinced they don’t have what it takes to lead a Team and aware that–because they have failed in their new position–the opportunity for them to advance within the organization  has effectively ended. 

A majority of the other 75 percent of the newly promoted remain in their new positions, but struggle to succeed.

And who can blame them?

They don’t want to admit defeat and they don’t want to relinquish the additional money/benefits and authority/power the new position provides them.  Yet they struggle to adequately perform and can only manage by command-control methods, which are ineffective and unsuitable for their Teammates.

Therefore, they fail to develop the High Performance Teams that generate high levels of productivity required in today’s work environment.  And, because of the ongoing struggle to merely keep their heads above water, they RE never able to effectively lead their Teams.  Inevitably, they, their Teams and the organization suffer because of their inability to adequately perform in their new position.

Why does The Peter Principle continue to wreak havoc in so many organizations?

>>Inadequate Managerial / Leadership Development Training in Advance of the Promotion

This is the primary cause of failure for the newly promoted (especially Front Line Leaders/Supervisors who are totally forgotten when it comes to pre-promotion training). Companies refuse to recognize that every promotion requires a different skill set that must be learned before the promoted can succeed. Companies continue to labor under the misconception that a High Performer, who is promoted, doesn’t need the coaching and leadership development training to recognize what skill sets he/she needs to properly perform in the new position and then receive the assistance to learn/practice those different skill sets.  Emphatically, that is not the case.

>>Managerial / Leadership Skill Sets Required by any Team Leader / Executive promotion are not Intuitive

Unfortunately, the basic elements of these two very distinct, but overlapping skill sets: 1) Managing – making sure today’s job gets done; and 2) Leading – developing the Team into a High Performance Team, have to be taught/learned. Their different values need to be explained/understood, and their practices need to be modeled.

But most organizations ignore this fundamental requirement for a successful promotion and continue to believe the newly promoted can be “thrown into the deep end and they’ll intuitively know how to swim.” This costly mindset ignores the reality of the Information Age work environment and needs to disappear.

The reality is it takes the newly promoted Team Leader/Executive, placed in a position of responsibility and authority, a year to fully understand what he/she needs to do to be a high performing Manager and High Performance Team Leader. The only exception to this process is where the appropriate Training and Coaching Programs are put in place to shorten the learning curve.

>>No Follow Up

When a former stellar employee struggles to handle new leadership responsibilities he/she likely won’t ask for help. To admit they are having difficulty managing/leading implies that they shouldn’t have been promoted in the first place.

So, they try to hold on, even though their struggle is obvious to everyone on their Team and affects productivity, innovation, teamwork and talent retention. And, more importantly those responsible for the promotion, fail or refuse to recognize their struggle and do not intervene by offering the necessary leadership development training and coaching.

In today’s work environment, where organizations need both an effective and an efficient workforce to be competitive and thrive–not only survive–companies cannot afford the luxury of a Peter/Pam limiting or destroying their Team’s productivity.

Take a look at your organization.

Do you have a Peter/Pam Manager/Executive?

If so, could the right training and coaching program assist them to develop the managerial/leadership skill sets they need to once again become high-performing?

Does your organization have a leadership development program that can provide the training and coaching necessary?

Or is your organization continuing to throw High Performers into the deep end of the pool and hope Peter/Pam can swim?

1 Comment
  • Srinivas
    Posted at 10:20h, 11 April Reply

    A very good article. It is also true that many high performers in the previous roles also consider that they do not need any training – overconfidence.
    When organisations organise L&D training, they are physically present, mentally elsewhere.

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