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The Peter Principle: How a Promotion Can Shatter Your Growth

The Peter Principle: How a Promotion Can Shatter Your Growth

Have you seen a coworker promoted one or more times before being stuck in that position forever? Maybe you are the person yourself.

If not anything else, I am sure you have seen a fantastic team member promoted to the role of a manager only to display average performance or fail miserably.

The Peter Principle

The Peter principle explains the reason behind such a flow of events.

What is the Peter Principle?

The meaning of Peter Principle as per psychology is that in a hierarchy, every employee rises to his level of incompetence at work. In simple, it implies, every employee grows until his ability allows and then stagnates.

Lawrence J Peter came up with the concept in 1968. When he first brought it up, it was not sure if he was joking. Raymond Hull later went on to write by the same name, The Peter Principle to summarize Peter’s research.

An Example of The Peter Principle

Let us take an example of two employees in an organization, David and William, both of who start as programmers.

They are the top performers of the team and over a short time earn a promotion to lead a project of their own. Their new role entails not only writing code but also managing their team members to deliver a software product.

David continues to excel with the code he writes but struggles to manage the other team members. He spends most of his time programming. The little time he spends on handling people goes on pointing out mistakes or ordering things based on authority.

After a few months, coworkers start hating David which makes him more agitated. The quality of his work diminishes and he remains stuck as a poor performing manager forever.

William, on the other hand, divides his time in half between writing code and managing people. He devotes energy to learning how to deal with people better. He does a fantastic job as a manager.

Impressed by his work, the management promotes William to become a technical director. His responsibilities now include planning a product, devising a roadmap, analyzing costs, mitigating risks and crafting a vision.

William lacks the necessary skills required to do the role and feels overwhelmed. To make it worse, he no longer has the time to write code which he always loved.

Over time he loses motivation and ends up as an average executive where is neither doing what he loves nor delivering great results.

Do you notice how David and William deviated from each other in terms of performance?

How Peter Principle Works

Here is how you can sum up Peter Principle as a visual:

How the Peter Principle Works

Every employee has an inherent limiting point until which they enjoy the work and earn a promotion. The moment they cross this point, they face a high chance of stagnation.

As a person grows in his career, more responsibilities fall on his shoulders. If he manages to deliver results, he earns a promotion.

With every promotion more responsibilities or results add up. If the employee can keep up, he keeps going higher and higher.

Whenever he cannot deliver, he stagnates. This happens less because the person lost motivation, but more because roles higher up are more challenging. If people do not learn new skills and improve, they will fail to handle the role at some point.

The reasons behind Peter Principle Syndrome

Various reasons cause the Peter Principle based on the employee, his goals, his choices and the management he works under.

1. The optimism of the employee

This is the part where the employee is responsible for the phenomenon.

Assuming the role above him is easy and enjoyable

Assuming job to be easy

Most employees believe they can easily perform the role right above them on their hierarchy. Besides, you might believe bagging the role of a manager is superior and makes your life better.

Team members who love their role as an individual contributor have a misconception that they will also enjoy carrying out responsibilities as a manager. In the corporate world, you will hear employees speak about how they could do a better job than their manager.

The thought process of the employee is, “A higher role gives me more power and money. I will excel at it.” People forget that every role comes with new challenges.

Assuming change is easy to deal with

You might assume that you can deal with the change but not everyone enjoys the duties of a manager.

You think people respect authority by default but that is far from the truth. Employees respect a leader who operates with high levels of ethics and leads by example.

Employees might show respect for authority in person because they have to. The moment they get a chance to crib behind the manager’s back, they will go guns blazing on how terrible their manager is.

Taking a leadership role for the first time is a big change for most people. To succeed in the role, you will need to find your way through the change and steer clear from blunders. You can read more about how human beings react to change.

To learn any new skills like an upcoming technology, employees are willing to spend time learning, reading books, attending classes and taking courses. But when it comes to being a manager or a leader, people believe they already have it in them.

As strange as it sounds, the employee fails to dedicate even an ounce of their time to hone their management skills.

2. The optimism of the manager

On the other here are some actions and thoughts of the manager which lead to the Peter Principle.

Believing a top employee will fit any role

Switching roles

A common cause is when the manager does not understand his people well enough. Many managers make the mistake of picking the top-performing employee and asking him to take up a different role or a promotion which comes with a baggage of additional responsibilities.

An employee becomes a star performer because he loves the role. The moment you give him additional responsibilities, he can no longer dedicate enough time on the role he loved.

If the employee isn’t willing to change, you will see him working just like before with a little time spent on management.

Believing an employee will work harder due to a promotion

Managers assume that the star performer will exhibit the same level of performance in any role. They might even go a step further to believe that motivated by the promotion, the employee will strive even harder.

For people with lesser experience, at least some of them, money alone might suffice as motivation. Once people grow up the ladder, enjoying the job is essential to deliver results.

No matter how much money is the table, if the employee does not connect with the role, he will stagnate sooner or later.

Reluctance to hire outsiders

Even in cases where hiring an outsider serves the better good, managers take a bet on one of their current employees.

In some cases, the move works wonders when the employee flourishes, grows and enjoys the new role. In other cases, it puts the employee on the spot where he starts hating his job altogether.

The manager looks at it as an opportunity for growth for the team member while the employee thinks he was happy with his earlier job.

3. Ignorance of additional responsibilities

Every promotion comes with extra things to take care of. If the role above was the same as the current, hierarchies would not exist.

When an employee is performing well, he believes the role above him to be only slightly different than his current job. The role of a manager might seem like spending an hour looking after things and doing the rest as is.

The responsibilities show up only when the employee places his feet in the water. Caught by surprise, the employee chooses to deny the fact that he needs to change to carry out the role. He changes nothing by ignoring the new areas which need his attention.

Over time, the approach turns unsustainable. Before the promotion, the growth seems like an obvious career boost due to the another choice myth.

Once the person achieves the goal, reality kicks in throwing the employee into a downward spiral.

How to overcome the Peter Principle

Both the manager and the employee need to work on different areas to avoid the Peter Principle.

As an employee:

1. Do not assume that you will love the role above you.

Do research

Understand in-depth what the new role involves. Talk to the existing person in the role on how he spends his time. Find out if you will have the time to do what you enjoy doing.

Consider turning down the promotion if you believe the role does not suit your values and interests. Ask your manager if you can pick another role that aligns with your interests.

2. Do not assume that a management role is superior

Neither does everyone enjoy the role of a leader nor is every single employee cut for it. You might grow far ahead in your career if you choose to progress towards building expertise in what you’re already doing.

Managing a team comes with a weight of responsibility on your shoulders. Take up the role only if you are willing to expend energy in carrying that weight.

If you believe you will turn into a great manager due to your natural ability, you are in for a surprise.

Spend time learning the skills required for the new role

An easy way to break out of the phenomenon is to cultivate a habit of learning and an attitude of humility. Take time stepping of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to stretch your limits. If you have the interest to learn new skills, you have a much higher chance of turning successful.

You can devote 30 minutes to an hour a day on honing your skills. While the time spent might seem little when you begin, you will see the results a few months later due to marginal gains.

Irrespective of the skill, you will find enough books and courses on the subject. If you have the desire to learn, the material is only a click away.

As a manager

1. Talk to the employee before promoting him

Talk to the employee

If you have to promote an employee, help him understand how things will change with the new role. The employee might nod due to the excitement of the opportunity but you have to judge if the role will resonate with the interests of the person.

Promote people already performing at the role above them

Some organizations have a smart way of choosing people for promotion. The top performers are set goals of performing responsibilities of the role above them.

This serves as a trial ground both for the manager and the employee. The manager knows if the team member can deliver and the employee gets a first-hand taste of how the new role feels like. When they see an employee already exhibiting high levels of performance and enjoying it, the promotion is a no brainer.

2. Arranging for training

Conduct trainings

Often, managers assume that a top performer can figure out the nuances of the new role himself. No matter how shrewd and hardworking an employee is, he might be clueless about how to succeed in the new role. He might not know where to begin and be reluctant to ask for help.

Arrange for training and encourage an open culture of questions, good or bad. You can play the role of a mentor to help the employee in areas he is struggling.


There are criticisms of the principle but the Peter Principle theory is real and happens across all organizations but people fail to either see it or admit it. Overcoming the negative effects of the phenomenon requires effort from both managers and employees.

Whether you are a manager or an employee, do not make any assumptions. Sit down, analyze and talk about the new role. A promotion can work as a stepping stone towards success if you choose to grow in the right direction. When you take a wrong promotion, it can cast a spell of doom on your career.

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