A good friend of mine is the CFO of a multi-billion dollar transnational and one evening we got into a relatively drunken conversation about how people are promoted to the positions they’re in. He introduced me to the concept that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. This got me thinking about how long I’ve got in my career, what my level of competency is and what I could do to ensure I don’t fall victim to the concept known as the Peter Principle.
The principle, formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1969, roughly assigns the ubiquitous reasoning that anything that works will be used in ever more challenging applications until it fails. Basically, we try to use what’s worked before when doing something new, even when it might not be the right way of going about things and where a more appropriate solution may have been presented to us.
Generally when people are reviewed for a promotion one of the first things the management will do is look at how they’ve performed in the existing role. Promotions are bestowed and people get new roles. Eventually people will reach their highest level of competency. In this role they excel, their skills are aligned with their objectives. Then it’s possible that that person will be promoted once more. This next role will raise them to a level at which they are not competent or raise them to their ‘level of incompetence’. The level of incompetence is the point at which an employee cannot be further promoted within an organisation.
Peter argued that in time, every position is occupied by someone who is not competent to carry out the duties of the position and work is then carried out by other employees who have not yet reach their level of incompetence.
So why is it that people get promoted to positions they are competent for?
People are generally promoted on past performance and not on future performance. It is assumed that they will be able to step up or skill up to their new role, or that their experiences within the organisation and roles to date will give them the background to make a success of their new role. This generally misses the point that skills in one role, whilst they may not be more difficult, may be so different that the promoted person becomes incompetent in their new role.
In marketing for examples a great social media manager may not have the skills to lead a team made up of SEO managers, PPC managers, social media managers, outreach marketers etc because they may not have the interpersonal or leadership skills to manage a team.
Peter Principle also states that managers will tend to preserve the hierarchy by not promoting the really competent junior employees.
I’m just about 36 and I’ve been working in marketing for the best part of 15 years. It’s been a great career for me to date, but not without its ups and downs, and the odd bump in the road. I’m increasingly conscious that I’m becoming one of the older marketers and that the older you get as a marketer, the more you’re living on borrowed time. So those who survive have to up their game and find ways to overcome the Peter Principle.
Peter Principle in marketing teams
At first you may think the Peter Principle is just a throwaway concept. However over the years there has been a significant amount of credible research into this subject and the concept doesn’t just seem plausible, it seems probable.
In 1973, follow up research called “A Postscript to the Peter Principle” noted that certain managers, including women and those from minorities, were generally exempt because they often weren’t promoted despite their competences, meaning overall they won’t reach their level of incompetence.
Additionally, in 1976 a follow up called “The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain” suggested that the level of incompetence wasn’t immutable but rather it suggested that people are promoted to their level anxiety and depression, until their ambitions and desires to succeed become overwhelmed.
That’s not to say there are no good bosses. Of course there are. Often people learn to deal with their poor bosses by improving their own leadership skills and overtaking them by becoming good bosses themselves. But it’s important to think about the development of managers in marketing.
Marketing is one part of a business that is often vulnerable from the Peter Principle. Perhaps it has been more so since the development of the internet. Because technologies develop so quickly, marketers often have to be able to rapidly adapt to new ways of working, new technological implications which present threats and opportunities to business models.
The higher up the corporate ladder marketers get, the more strategic their roles become. As they progress, marketers are more likely they are to spend a greater amount of time planning and managing, rather than working tactically, solving those basic everyday problems. And whilst tactical expertise doesn’t get you ready for management, the value of tactical expertise deprecates over time when a person isn’t working at a tactical marketing level. This in itself can lead to poor decision making and leadership problems in marketing.
Here are some ways to overcome Peter Principle in marketing teams:
Reward don’t promote – wherever possible it’s best to reward competence remuneratively or through benefits and perks rather than with the responsibilities associated with promotions.
Keep management lean – don’t create levels of management where they aren’t needed. It’s a simple rule, but many operations and executives naturally gravitate towards creating hierarchical structures to create a greater sense of control.
Add duties, not responsibilities – where possible add duties that stretch an employee’s skillset and assist them to increase their efficiency along the way.
Create feedback mechanisms – get your team to anonymously evaluate their immediate managers and subordinates. This should be done every few months to make sure other member of the hierarchy can work on their working practices.
Promote randomly – you might be horrified by this one, but believe it or not, research using agent-based modelling in a system which assumes the Peter Principle to be true found the best way to improve effectiveness of management is to promote people at random.
If you find yourself dealing with a manager who has risen to their level of incompetency then it’s probably time to start upskilling your own leadership skills. If you’re a manager yourself and you’ve come to the conclusion you’ve hit your level of incompetence don’t worry, it’s not all over for you. As long as you’re willing to try develop yourself in the role. Now the old adage rings true: fake it until you make it.