Do people really get promoted to their level of incompetence?
Have you heard of the Peter Principle? It states that people rise to the level of their incompetence, ie people who are good at their job will keep getting promoted up to the level at which they are no good. Most of us have seen people who have good technical job skills get promoted to manager or general manager and make a mess of the new role. So how much does the principle apply in reality?
US researchers were quoted in an article (subscription access) in the Harvard Business Review website in March 2018 that gave the answer: Yes, the Peter Principle definitely holds true (at least to salespersons).
The researchers examined workplace data in 214 US firms and found the Peter Principle certainly applies to the performance of salespersons and their managers. They found:
…firms tend to promote top sales workers into management, even though they become the worst managers.
What’s more, the research showed that when a salesperson is promoted, their new management role is correlated with a 7.5% decline in the performance of each of their subordinates following the promotion.
Does the Peter Principle apply to PR pros?
The principle may well tend to apply generally, but that needs to be substantiated. In my experience it does apply to PR consultants. Good consultants don’t necessarily make good managers.
I have also found that creative PR consultants often aren’t very well organized as account managers, and well organized consultants aren’t often very creative.
The issues could also arise with specialist corporate PR roles. For instance, an outstanding social media pro or PR officer may not make a very good manager when promoted. These people are generally flat out at a tactical level while skills at a management level need to be much more strategic, for which they may be unprepared or unsuited.
How to offset the impact of the Peter Principle
The researchers say some options can be applied:
- Firms can reward top performers with pay rather than promotion. Firms with the strongest pay-for-performance also separately promoted the best managers. In other words, by rewarding sales performance with greater incentive pay, firms are free to promote the best potential managers separately. The best salespeople don’t feel they have to become managers in order to earn more money.
- But promotions aren’t all about pay, they’re also about prestige. Some employers like Microsoft use dual career ladders, for instance, by promoting excellent programmers up a technical track and excellent leaders up a managerial track, with similar job levels in each equating to similar pay and prestige. Separating managerial and “hands-on” responsibilities also limits conflicts of interests and other issues that arise in “player-coach” arrangements.
- Another solution is to separate evaluation of future career potential from previous job performance. Employees who score highly on future career potential can be rewarded with promotion to management roles. Employees who score highly on previous job performance can be rewarded with bonuses, promotions up a specialist career track, or with recognition.
Food for thought if you are managing a departmental or consulting team…