Have You Been Promoted to your Level of Incompetence?

Have You Been Promoted to your Level of Incompetence?

This might seem like a strange question to ask anyone but have you ever considered if this is possible?

Being promoted to your level of incompetence is known as ‘The Peter Principle’.

The principle was proposed in 1969 by Dr Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their book of the same name.

The principle holds that, in hierarchical organizations, an employee is promoted through the grades until they reach the grade where they are, in effect, no longer competent. Thus, because they are now not deemed to be suitable for promotion to the next grade, they have been promoted to their level of incompetence!

Being unable to earn further promotions, the employee remains at this level.

By extension, and from a disappointing perspective, the principle highlights the very real possibility that the best work being accomplished in the organization is by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

At a practical level, can psychometrics and Selection by Design help with this problem?

Yes – it is possible to overcome the Peter Principle and evaluate an employee’s ‘potential’ to be successful at the higher grade.  After all, would an employee really want to be promoted to their level of incompetence, with all of the feelings that would come with this (e.g., frustration, anxiety, bullying tactics).  Without mentioning them, it becomes pretty obvious what the ‘costs’ to the organization and other employees would be when everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence.

However, it is important to remember that it could just be that the employee hasn’t suddenly become incompetent – it could be that their skillset just does not match the skillset required at the higher level (i.e., the new position requires different skills from those which the employee clearly excelled at in the lower grade.

For example, Jo may excel in the position of Administrative Officer and earn a promotion to the grade of Executive Officer.  However, the skills required at this Executive level may be ‘managerial’ as opposed to ‘administrative’.  If Jo struggles with demonstrating competence at this new position / skillset, Jo has now been promoted to the ‘level of incompetence’.

Alluded to above were feelings and actions that someone promoted to their level of incompetence may feel.  As well as the potential psychological and health damage to the employee, it is possible that they may, in turn, cause harm to the organization.  For example, Jo may become frustrated at the lack of further promotion and see other junior employees quickly rising through the ranks.  If this frustration leads to a fear that one of these employees may get promoted to a level higher than Jo, thus becoming one of Jo’s bosses, Jo may use bullying tactics to keep the junior employees at their lower grades.

Such a scenario will affect the bottom-line for Jo and the organization alike.

Some questions to consider:

Would it be better to reward Jo’s excellence as an Administrator by a pay rise instead of a promotion?

Should the organization require that certain grades be held for no longer than a set amount of time, with a lack of advancement being grounds for dismissal?

Should such an organization restructure to a more ‘horizontal’ model?

Should the organization reorganise and make more use of outsourcing, thus removing any need for promotions?

A related issue is the ‘fallacy of the normal distribution’ when planning pay and reward systems.  Selection by Design will provide some information on this fallacy soon.

Peter, L. J., & Hull, R. (1969). The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York: William Morrow and Company.

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