Promoting Incompetence


image via Dollarclub Photo
image via Dollarclub Photo

Have you ever joined a new company or a new department and met the manager you reported to, excited by the new challenge. At first there is obvious respect to work with them, to learn from them. Time goes by and some of the decision making from the boss seems a little odd, random and over time inconsistent, even though the issues they’re managing may not have changed. As much as you don’t want to admit it, you start questioning their decisions and the authority. Disappointment sets in as we all want our leaders to inspire and engage in being the best we can be.

We end up asking ourselves the question “How the heck did this person get their job, they have no idea?”

Unfortunately this scenario is way too common. In a lot of instances we are experiencing the “Peter Principal”. In concept, The Peter principle is a management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter in which the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Basically the “Peter Principal” is when somebody gets promoted to their level of incompetence!! i.e. employees are promoted through the companies’ structure until they reach a level of failure through incompetence.

Picture designed by Nevit Dilmen

Picture designed by Nevit Dilmen

We live in a business world where most people want to excel in what they do. They want promotion and they work hard to get there. With promotion comes reward and higher remuneration, as well as kudos of title and position. We also live in a world where businesses talk about the importance of training and development, but that costs money, not just money for the courses themselves but also a cost in the downtime to attend. Sometimes the desire does not match the facts.

In the above situation, I believe generally that it’s not “Peters” fault that he’s risen to a position where he is incompetent, it’s the companies fault for not providing the right training and development and also for not identifying that “Peter” is just not capable of carrying out his new role.

I was introduced to the “Peter Principal” quite early in my career, when one of my Character Angels explained the concept to me. I have unfortunately met many “Peters” in my career. Through experience in meeting them, they become quite easy to spot and I always have to sadly chuckle, sometimes inwardly cry, that I’ve met another. As I’ve said, it’s generally not their fault. If “Peter’s” boss wants to give him a pay rise and promotion into a management role, there are very few people in this world that would turn that down. Most of us would give it a crack, even if we were totally out of our comfort zone. Call it drive, ambition or even ego but we all want to progress and better our careers. However, having said that, having been put into a position where they are incompetent, the “Peter” has a duty of care to his team and should actively seek training to improve their competence. An unfortunate trend that can follow the “Peter Principal” is one where the “Peter” strikes out to protect himself to hide their incompetence. This can bring out all manner of behaviours, the worst of which is bullying the team, but we’ll address that in another blog.

I’ve worked in the construction industry all of my professional life and for the most part in the consultancy world. This world belongs to the Engineers, the Quantity Surveyors the Architects and the Project Managers, to name a few. In most cases these professions take years of study at college and university, followed by years of on the job training to gain practical experience. As we go up the ladder, our technical abilities improve and we are able to deliver an unbelievably high level of skilled service and experience. This may require us to manage a team, but mostly in a technical capacity rather than a true leadership capacity. But inevitably the next step is to become the manager or leader and move away from the technical skills we have practiced for so many years. We move into a role that requires softer skills, emotional intelligence and more business acumen around profit and loss and forecasting revenue plus ensuring our team performs. This type of promotion, in so many instances, comes with minimal or no training whatsoever. We spend years of our lives becoming the best technical people in the business, only to be taken out of that role where we have been so valuable to the business and our clients, into a role where we potentially become incompetent. It’s insane, but businesses do it time after time after time. The question is not only why but how do we go about fixing it?

A few years ago I learnt that in Germany the education splits students into categories dependent on their academic abilities. The scheme, Vocational Education Training (VET) connects educational with economic aims, and programmes are co-operations between companies and schools.

The scheme carries on through companies promotional structures which, simply put, are split between technical and managerial streams. Both structures allow for an enormous amount of growth and promotion opportunity no matter what stream you are in. Therefore people who love their technical role can be rewarded and recognised for what they are great at. Conversely, the management and leadership stream team are given the right training to prevent a “Peter Principal” scenario. The scheme allows for students to build a foundation of skills and experience to begin their careers with and grow in the future.

This makes perfect sense. Obviously there are “for” and “against” with all systems and I don’t profess to be an expert in the field of German schooling and career progression but until the rest of us figure out a way to do something similar, the “Peter Principal” comes back to the fact that we do not continue to train and develop our future leaders as well as we should. I’m sure you’ve all heard the quote below, probably with the first part of the quote said by “Peter”:

“Peter – What if we train our team and they leave?

CEO – What happens if we don’t train them and they stay?!”

If we want great leadership, we must continually train our talent to be just that. We can’t expect our greatest assets, our people, to be led by mindless “Peters” drowning in their own incompetence, no matter whose fault that is. I believe that companies and their true leaders need to seriously invest, both with time and money, to ensure that their businesses thrive and achieve their potential.

On a final note, I know there are some great companies out there who do invest in amazing leadership training programmes but there are still “Peter’s” within these businesses. In these cases, I believe it’s a failure of the organisations in how they are structured and how they identify and reward talent, or lack of talent, which is the issue. I have not come across any Principle that defines this so if you are aware of one I’d be fascinated to hear it.

Let me know if you’ve come across the “Peter Principal” and please, if your company won’t invest in you, then invest in yourself and get training to develop the skills you need to progress your career. Don’t be a “Peter”.*

*No people named Peter should be offended by this blog!!!!

One thought on “Promoting Incompetence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s