Are Employees Being Promoted Until They Become Incompetent?


In organisational structures, the assessment of an employee’s potential for promotion is often based on their performance in their current role. As such, in most standard organisations an employee’s appraisal process will broadly follow these five steps:

  1. Feedback is received for work completed.
  2. This feedback is then collated and used to form the basis of an employee’s business case for promotion.
  3. The aforementioned business case is then presented to a senior management panel.
  4. The senior management panel will agree on an appraisal rating for the employee based on the strength of this case.
  5. Promotions will be weighted towards employees with higher appraisal ratings.

On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. Why would you want to promote an employee who is not already crushing it? The issue with this retrospective-style of appraisal, however, is that it doesn’t take into account one very important thing: Just because an employee is a great asset in their current position, it doesn’t mean that they will have the abilities needed to succeed in their new position.

Following this line of thought, it goes to say that employees will only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform their duties effectively. In turn, employees rise to the level of their incompetence. With no chance of further promotion up the ladder, they will reach a career ceiling and remain in a role which they cannot fully perform effectively.

This management theory concept is known as the Peter Principle, so named after the Canadian educator who formulated this concept in 1969, Lawrence J. Peter. He noted in his book Why Things Go Wrong that incompetence is most likely to occur when newly required skills are different, but not more difficult. For example, an excellent engineer may be a poor manager because they might not have the interpersonal skills necessary to lead a team.

So how does one, as an employee, avoid the Peter Principle coming to fruition? Well, the Harvard Business Review suggest asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is my boss interested in my welfare or does he see me as a competitor who needs to be neutralised? If it is the latter, then the chances of an employee being able to fully spread their wings become severely grounded.
  2. Can I correctly work out what my boss wants or am I stuck second-guessing from what he's actually saying? Don't be afraid to ask further questions at the initiation phase of a project. Better to fully comprehend what is required to be done than being told half-way through that what has been completed is incorrect.
  3. Will my boss reward or punish me if I make improvement suggestions? Some employers love employees who think outside of the box and constantly try to add value to the company. Others regard this type of attitude as evasive and threatening. Ensure you know when best to, and when not to, express yourself.
  4. Am I capable of doing my job? it may take you longer to find your feet in a role than expected. This is OK. Don't feel pressured to race for promotion and the next rung on that career ladder. There is no finish line and gold medal waiting for you at the top. Feel free to stick in your current role until you have mastered it.
  5. Do I want to emulate this boss, or should I distance myself from his poor example? Consider whether the job your boss has is actually what you want to work towards. If you don't admire their actions and position, then what is the point of being promoted one step closer to it. Be lateral thinking in your career development and don't become stuck in a silo.

Competent managers are likely to promote a super-competent for the betterment of the organisation. Incompetent managers, on the other hand, will feel intimidated and threatened by those who excel too much. The answers to these questions will help give you an indication of how to avoid hitches and obstacles in your career progression... and avoid becoming incompetent.