It happens to the best of people. They star as performers, whether in sports, sales, or other highly competitive fields, but when they are promoted into management, their twinkle dims. They prove to be mediocre leaders. They fail upward.
Why do first-time managers fail upward?
Employees excel because they are unique. Perhaps they work very long hours . . . or they have a strong natural talent . . . or both. The task they perform comes so naturally that they can’t understand why it is not as easy for those who now report to them. Because superior performance is so effortless, they cannot dissect the individual steps and nuances required to succeed. They are people pleasers who feel most comfortable when they make everyone happy. This often makes for a compatible coworker in non-managerial roles. Still, they can be unwilling to inform those who report to them on how they are missing expectations and how they can be more effective. They might relish the work they have left behind so much that they refuse to relinquish it to others. This could lead to them shying away from the supervisory tasks that are now their responsibility, but that intimidates them.
The Peter Principle in action
There is a general term that encompasses such situations: the Peter Principle. This principle is named after Laurence J. Peter, co-author of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969).
The principle states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” Employees are promoted based on their competence in their previous position, not based on their aptitude for a higher-ranking job. They continue to be promoted based on performance until they reach the place where they can no longer fulfill their intended role. And there they stay.
Stated more broadly, “Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.”
Here are five tips to avoid the Peter Principle in promotion decisions and to solve the problem once it occurs:
It’s a fact of life that some people who excel at what they do will not enjoy the work that management roles demand. They unwittingly allow themselves to be promoted too high up the ladder, resulting in ineffective performance. Some even resign rather than be fired or lose face by being demoted.
In short, recognize reality and plan accordingly.