How To Beat The Peter Principle

You may have heard of the Peter Principle. Back in the 1970’s, Dr Lawrence Peter suggested that, in a hierarchy, individuals tend to rise to the level of their own incompetence.

Most systems actually encourage this because people are told that if they work hard, do their job efficiently and get results, they will be promoted. But, as Peter himself says, “The problem is that when you find something you can’t do very well, that is where you stay, bungling your job, frustrating your colleagues and eroding the effectiveness of the organisation.”

This reflects a fundamental problem when assessing people’s potential. If someone is good at their current job, does this naturally predict success in the next one? Maybe, maybe not. Technical competence does not necessarily equate to managerial competence, for example.

How can you beat the Peter Principle?

With difficulty, but with perseverance. You need to match the person’s capabilities with the demands of the job. Your starting point should be an analysis of the skills required to achieve success in the new role.

Remember the acronym ‘MATCH’ and you give yourself a chance to win:

Managerial: The ability to make things happen, lead people, inspire them, motivate, build a team, maintain morale, co-ordinate, direct effort, use resources and control events. Does the person have the capacity to do all these?

Analytical: Directing problems and coming up with the right conclusions. Can they achieve this?

Technical/professional: The ability to use other people’s knowledge professionally as well as having the competence to do the job themselves. Are they able to do this?

Communications: The ability to put a message across in a way that is clear, understandable, brief, accurate and motivational. Do they have this capability?

Human Resource Management: The ability to get the best out of others and tap into their potential. Do they have the ability to get these results?

These five criteria should act as a sounding board when you are assessing the capability of someone to be promoted. Ask yourself what indications of capability do they show in their current role that will be utilised in the future role. If not, what weaknesses could be addressed so they have the capacity to carry out the future role?

After the promotion, monitor the progress of the individual so you keep tabs on how they are progressing and assist in their development.

So, although the Peter Principle is alive and well in many organisations, you have the ability to create the foundations to overcome it, if you use the ‘match’ acronym and identify the assistance you can give someone before they reach their level of incompetence.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

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