“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Regardless of your industry, it seems virtually everyone ends up on the same career path. You start out near the bottom. If you do really good work, you’ll get promoted, take on new responsibilities, etc. If you’re really good at that, you’ll get promoted again. Eventually if things go really well you’ll be put in charge of a group of people who are doing whatever it is you were doing. And that’s where, for most individuals and organizations, trouble starts.
The Peter Principle is not a new idea. Back in 1969 Lawrence J. Peter wrote a book by that title. The idea was that people keep getting promoted until they get to a level they can’t handle. Then they stay there and operate incompetently for the rest of their career. A lot of people have heard of this idea, yet this keeps on happening. And it isn’t just a humorous idea that keeps getting in the way – it causes serious problems.
Let’s use the example of a manufacturing company that does some welding. And let’s say you have an employee who’s a great welder. If that person welds better than everybody else for some period of time, you will probably promote them to supervisor of welders. So what’s the harm in that?
First, you’ve now lost your best welder. So your entire organization’s ability to weld has decreased. So you have a product quality issue.
Second, you’ve now asked someone to be a leader who may or may not have any leadership skills whatsoever. You’re basically saying, “Congratulations, you’re so good at your job that we’re going to give you a new job which is almost completely unrelated to what you were so good at before.” It may not be their fault – you may not have made any effort to prepare them to lead. But regardless, they quite often can’t handle it.
Lastly, you’ve put yourself in a situation without any good exit. If that person is an incompetent leader, are you going to fire them? Think about how ridiculous that is – you had an employee that was doing so well that you got rid of them. Are you going to demote them back to welder? That might work, but a lot of people would rather quit & go find another job than take a demotion. If you’ve been someone’s supervisor, how do you go back to being their peer? Most organizations would pick a third option – do nothing, allow the person to stay there and bomb, rather than admit the mistake and try to address it.
Think about your organization. How do you make decisions about promotions & who manages or leads people? Is it based on something relevant, or just their technical skill? And what are you doing to prepare leaders? Regardless of how you make promotion decisions, somebody has to lead. Are you giving them the opportunity to develop the right skill set? Or are you setting them up to fail? It’s your choice – only the future of your organization is at stake.