In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote the satirical management book “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong“, and, its key principle is only becoming more relevant. That overarching concept is “every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence” – i.e. we each get promoted until we’re no longer good at our job and then we get stuck in that role forever more. This leads not only to organisational ineffectiveness, but also employee unhappiness and anxiety. There are multiple plausible explanations for this and, helpfully, some research which explores the reality of the Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle
The greatness of Peter and Hull’s book was the balance between genuine insight and off the wall comedy. The theories within it were both intuitive and hugely readable. My training, however, is as a skeptical scientist, so I wanted to find a bit of evidence to support it.
In theoretical terms, there are a number of models, from Faria (2000) to Lezear (2001). Pluchino, Rapisarda and Garafalo (2009) even ran an agent based simulation that showed that promoting people at random was better than promoting the best current performers – though it’s worth noting they won an Ig Nobel award (it did assume that: 1) you promote the most competent from their current roles; and 2) that performance in current role doesn’t predict performance in the job above). These only show, however, that the Peter Principle is possible, not that it actually happens.
Dickinson and Villeval (2007) showed that the Peter Principle exists in a lab setting, as long as performance has both random and skill-based elements to it. This not only showed the Peter Principle at work, but also that it became stronger as the importance of the random element increased. Further it showed that using a promotion rule (i.e. people got promoted when they hit certain performance criteria) was still better than self-selection – as we’ve seen in other posts, people are bad at making judgements, particularly those relating to their own ability (in this case, a particular problem was attributing chance-related performance to their own ability).
Finally, alongside the many anecdotal examples, there has been some research into the real-world presence of The Principle. Barmby, Eberth and Ba (2006) conducted a review of over a decade’s worth of data from a large financial firm – this indicated that there was a drop in performance after promotion and that 2/3rds of this could be accounted for by the Peter Principle. Earlier Abraham and Medoff (1980) found that subjective performance was lower the longer people had been in a job, while Gibbs and Hendricks (2001) found that raises and bonuses fall with tenure – both these findings reflected that the people who performed worse in their role stayed their for longer (or that staying in the role too long decreases performance). Together these pieces of research suggest that people in a role for a long time are worse at their job, while those who get promoted perform worse at their next job.
The Many Theories Behind the Peter Principle
There seems to be, therefore, a consensus that the Peter Principle is a real world occurrence. There is not, however, agreement over what creates it. Explanations are many and varied, including: the change in skills required between different roles; regression to the mean; a reduction in motivation after a promotion; promoting people out of the way; strategic incompetence; and even that super-competence is less desired within an organisation than incompetence.
Different Jobs, Different Skills
The most immediately logical reason for a person to perform worse after a promotion is where the new job demands different skills to the last one. A common example is where those who are great at actually doing work are then promoted into a management role, but this applies each and every time someone moves into a new role.
This is particularly relevant in competency-based promotion systems, which are designed to try to emphasise cross-cutting skills, increase the available candidate pool and generate common standards across an organisation – clearly worthwhile goals. For organisations that have committed, however, to a largely competence based recruitment and promotion system, such as the UK Civil Service, this presents a real challenge. How can you really assess their ability to use very different skills, relying only on their past experience? Either you have to accept that you recruit people who already have experience in the same kind of role (defeating a key objective of the system) or you have to accept that you’ll sometimes promote people who don’t have the skills you’re after.
Our society constantly informs us that it is a positive to climb the career ladder, meaning promotion becomes an aspirational thing. This can lead to people either: a) being unhappy in roles that they’d really enjoy, if they didn’t have the weight of aiming for promotion hanging over them; or b) moving from roles that they are happy in and into a job they hate because it was a promotion.
To compound this, we’re hugely uncomfortable with the idea of either an organisation depromoting someone or someone choosing to move back to an old role. That can lead to people being fired, when we know they can be highly productive within the organisation, or staying in a job they hate until they retire, when they know there’s a job within the organisation they enjoy. One of the bravest people I know chose to take a demotion out of a management position back into their previous role – as a result they’re also one of the happiest.
This is a too broad a topic to digest here, but tools that can help include the recent focus on mindfulness, openness in the workplace and emphasising any successful examples.
Not Incompetence, but Stress
The Harvard Business Review wrote in 1976 (“The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain”) that the problem didn’t arise due to people failing to have the right technical, academic or interpersonal skills to succeed, but due to them moving into a role where stress and anxiety suppresses them. This drives both an organisational decrease in productivity and an individual loss of well-being. Be aware that this doesn’t always become apparent through stereotypical over-emotional ways (e.g. temperamental behaviour, crying in the office), but can also be expressed through increasing passivity and detachment.
Returning to Normal Performance
Lazear argues that the Peter Principle is simply due to regression to the mean, and those involved in promoting failing to recognise that there is variation in performance (i.e. the regression fallacy). He argues that, as a promotion suggests a performance standard has been met, performance is likely to be lower in your new role. You are promoted because of your exceptional performance, which means either your ‘normal’ performance is exceptional (or better) and you were performing normally or that your ‘normal’ performance is less than exceptional, but that, for a period of time, your performance deviated from the mean by enough to reach that exceptional hurdle.
If you’re in the second group, then after promotion your performance is likely to regress back to the mean, so your performance is likely to be below the expectations when you were promoted. This is particularly apparent in the sporting world because you can measure someone’s performance – as an example, between the start of the English Premier League in 1992 and the end of the 2012/13 season, 33 players scored 20 goals in a season (the unwritten benchmark for a top quality striker). Only 12 of those were able to do it more than once; the vast majority regressed back to the mean.
This is a subset of the underestimation of variance in people’s performance, but here I’m only referring to variation due to luck (rather than our own performance). Given that this is a subset of the above, it again has a particular impact on competency-based systems.
As a purely anecdotal example, about 2 years ago I was working on six outline business cases with one other person. We shared the workload and both contributed to all of the proposals, but eventually had to (for process reasons) decide who was in the ‘lead’ for each option, so we split them down the middle – 3 each. I would have judged our work as of near identical quality. Yet, due to circumstances beyond my (or his) control, ‘my’ three business cases were accepted, to none of his. For my ‘success’ I received both praise and the highest performance marking, but due to my colleagues ‘failure’ he was largely forgotten.
It was only luck that separated us, but people judged us only on the outcome not the quality of work in getting there. This bias towards outcome is prevalent and it’s easy to get blinded by big numbers and impressive endings, but it’s important to take a step back. We neglect the role luck played in the candidates’ successes and failures – and, as Dickenson and Villeral showed earlier on, the bigger the role luck plays, the larger the effect of the Peter Principle.
Lost Interest After Promotion
This is a fairly obvious one – people work as hard as possible to get a promotion and once they’ve achieved that they no longer have a clear goal so lose motivation. I won’t spend too long on this, as I wrote about motivation in this post, but it makes particular sense in the context which that article set – not only is the motivation of promotion removed, but the focus on achieving promotion is also likely to reduce your intrinsic motivation in doing the job itself.
You’re Too Good; It’s Showing Us Up!
This one takes us back to Peter himself – he stated that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.” This one is impossible to find evidence for, beyond the anecdotal, but the argument is this – people who perform too well (or would clearly be better at their seniors’ jobs) disrupt the hierarchy of an organisation. The organisation fights to maintain that hierachy by acting against these who are “super-competent”. Therefore managers find spurious reasons to not promote staff or to avoid giving them strong performance reviews (this circular nature is part of what makes it difficult to find evidence – the response to super-competence is to find a way to deny any super-competence).
Further, peers often become suspicious of over-performers and can leave them isolated, which can result in organisations losing some of their most talented staff to places where they feel more ‘normal’.
Move Someone Up – and Out of the Way
Another slightly cynical one, but one lots of us have seen – people get promoted because their current business area wants to get rid of them. There are arguments that within certain types of firm (such as technology), it’s a organisational theme rather than just one-offs; people are moved into management because they lack the specific skills to do the skilled front-line work. Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat, published under the pseudonym Archibald Putt, pursues exactly this theory – incompetence is “flushed out of the lower levels” leaving two kinds of people in technology, “those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand”.
As a slight aside, it’s worth noting some of the more innovative thinking about organisational structures – Joel Spolsky proposes that we should move away from the concept of a central management team being the top of an organisation and move towards it being ‘led’ by those doing front-line activity. In his world view (tinted towards technology, clearly) the ‘management team’ should not believe itself to be an executive, decision-making function, but a support function. Therefore it should be seen as “administration” – they do the things that help work get done. I’ll have a look at some organisational structure concepts in later posts.
Jared Sandberg came up with this term, while writing in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, can’t find a link). His description was this – “Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do—without ever having to admit it.” He meant this in a range of situations, including people simply choosing to be terrible at a specific task (say, doing the ironing) so they don’t have to do it anymore. In this context, however, we’re talking about when the most suitable people for promotion choose to perform badly enough to avoid it. This might not be by failing in their core responsibilities – presumably a major driver for doing this is that you enjoy your job more than the one you’d be promoted into – but can be by purposefully showing themselves to be unsuitable for the next step up, such as refusing to engage in the expected ‘networking’ activity or acting out at team events.
This behaviour results in less suitable people being promoted, but does mean that individuals using strategic incompetence avoid the Peter Principle – by purposefully avoiding promotion they avoid being moved up into their maximally incompetent role (or “final placement” as Peter called it). It opens up an interesting topic, e.g. is this an effective personal strategy (as you avoid the stress noted above)? Or could it even be good for the organisation as a whole (as you have people in roles where they’re still highly competent)? This leads on to my final section; how can we try to avoid, or at least dampen the effect of, the Peter Principle.
Is There Anything We Can Do?
Here are a few thoughts, to provide a starting point, on how we can counter the Principle:
Focus on Proof of Performance in the New Role – Sorry for stating the blindingly obvious, but this is still the main area where organisations go wrong. The focus should not be on how good the employee has been, but on how good they’re going to be in the new role (which can clearly include consideration of previous performance). One way to do this is to complement competencies with tailored tests (whether specific skill, situational judgement, personality, or scenario-based testing). Another way is to really narrow down the focus on competencies to the new role. This often means trying to forget about the outcomes and concentrating on the elements of the process that are relevant.
Finally, it’s often possible (though you need to consider whether the role merits the cost) to run some sort of “real life interview” over a couple of days, by assessing performance in a more life-like scenario. This can include the obvious – like asking candidates to research and deliver a presentation or analyse some part of your business – but can also involve something a bit different, like allowing them to genuinely perform a business operation for a short period or giving them some funding and letting them show what they can deliver with it.
Adjusting for Luck and Regression to the Mean – We need to avoid focusing purely on outcomes, particularly where luck is a major determinant. By asking people with knowledge of the area where the candidate’s competencies comes from, you can start to assess the impact luck could have had. To adjust for regression to the mean, we need to avoid just relying on a few one-off examples or merely someone’s performance over the last period – find ways to take a range of information on board (and simulate their real-world performance, as suggested above). Allowing someone to merely present a few of their highlights is bound to give a very unbalanced picture of themselves (and is likely to be biased against those who deliver at a high level consistently – they’ll appear worse than those with occasional exceptional work, even if they deliver indifferently most of the time. On a different note, it’s also biased towards those who are comfortable lying).
Have Genuine Skill-Specific Career Paths – This is a fairly well-trodden road, but still a worthwhile one and still one that is poorly executed. Organisations need to recognise the value of specific skills to them – and accept that sometimes people can still be worth the big bucks without having to manage people. By opening up different career paths (rather than the typical process of starting as a worker, becoming a skilled worker, then managing workers), organisations can make the most of their people, while rewarding them appropriately. One of the skills that is often forgotten about is the ability to manage well – this is a skill in itself and should be recognised individually. Just because someone is a great manager, it doesn’t mean they’ll be a great strategic thinker. This is where I think Joel Spolsky’s approach can help managers; acknowledging a distinct “administration” function of a business leads towards the acceptance that specific skills are needed to keep everything else operating.
Typically organisations start this process in good faith, but let it become contaminated as other areas of the business want to have roles at the newly created level – until eventually it just becomes another level across the whole organisation (which is a worse than neutral result, as it simply adds an extra layer into the hierarchy). The purpose behind creating a specific career path must be clearly defined and that purpose must be maintained for the organisation to get a pay off.
Probationary Promotions – This is a cultural (maybe even societal?) challenge, as it would remove the big-deal nature of promotion and make movement both up and down an organisation more common. It is, however, clearly the best way to know whether someone can really do the job; and let’s them know whether they want to!
Generate Movement – There’s a simple solution to people getting stuck in jobs that they’re ill-suited; create a system that forces movement onto people. This has downsides – you’re also moving people out of jobs they’re very well suited to, some people like feeling settled and you break up teams that work well together – but it does avoid people staying in their “maximum incompetence” role. A number of firms do this, through a couple of ways; some companies have firing and promotion for fixed percentages of their workforce on a regular basis, whilst others just have mandated ‘rotation’ periods (e.g. everyone has to move role every two years).
Taking Responsibility for Yourself – We all need to look after ourselves a bit more and really think about our career moves and what we want from it. In reality, I get that it’s very difficult not to get swept up in the excitement of being offered a new position and the societal belief that moving up an organisational ladder is a good thing (never mind the money!). We need, however, to go into new jobs with our eyes open and as prepared as possible – we should think about the possibility of promotion early and consider what we want from work. We can’t just lay the blame at our employers feet if we find ourselves in a job we don’t enjoy – we have to take some responsibility.
So what do you think? Are there any other reasons the Peter Principle exists? Is it, to some extent, inevitable? And, most importantly, is there anything else we can do to mitigate it?