The Peter Principle

Let’s imagine a promotion parable…

An employee is identified as faster and smarter than most of their peers.  Management decides to promote them to team leader; their role evolves.  Because this employee already knows how this team functions, they also excel in this role, producing results and success amidst the environmental stresses to which they are accustomed.  The result is another promotion, this time to management.  Perhaps at this level our employee finds they have little prior experience or training to draw from.  Not only can they not produce results, they may find themselves barely hanging on.  They don’t have what it takes to evolve.  So they are left just where they are, too incompetent to be promoted and never failing hard enough to be demoted.  Thus is born a law of the office: the Peter Principle.  

How do we fall into this trap?

Comfort and success have their own toll: complacency.  The insidious temptation to accept a pleasant status quo robs us of the opportunity for reflection and growth. Evolution requires environmental stressors.  We need to change our mindset from a fixed, results-focused appraisal of where we’ve been to a growth-focused vision of where we could be going.  Carol Dweck, Stanford researcher and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, excellently summarizes the fixed mindset: it is our belief that our abilities are innate and our failure represents an inherent lack of those abilities.  This mindset leads to a fear of failure, stress (from both failure and success), a sense of superiority with an undertow of self doubt, and lower grit.

Should we find ourselves embodying the Peter Principle, let’s not panic.  We need to look at our situation dispassionately and decide what road we should be headed down. Then, we need to develop a plan for exactly how we plan to grow in that direction. Any solution we discover will take a hearty dose of humility. It may require that we reach out to peers, search for willing mentors, or crack open some books.  

All of this, of course, assumes we want to stay in the role we’ve found ourselves in.  Maybe our strengths are simply not congruent with what this job demands.  Perhaps spending a few years trying to tune-up our weaknesses doesn’t sound very appealing.  There’s nothing wrong with choosing to go back to roles that play to your strengths, as long as you’re doing it by choice and with a recognition that you still have the strength to evolve.  

Dealing with victims of the Peter Principle

It’s a virtual certainty that we will encounter others who seem to embody the Peter Principle; leaders who seem to have lost their relevance and efficacy, who don’t seem to fit in either a management role.  There is a strong temptation to look down on those individuals or to condemn them for their lack of growth.  But if we step back and look at their situation through the filter of our compassion, is our gut reaction fair?  Perhaps this person has never had a formal education in management or leadership, or a mentor, or even any idea what information has been written on the subject.  Maybe they’re struggling with their professional inadequacies even more than their subordinates.  We can choose to explore ways that we might be able to support that person rather than pity or undermine them.  

As with every other aspect of our development, whether or not we fall into the Peter Principle will be directly related to whether we approach each day with intention: how can we be better than yesterday?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *