The Peter Principle: Why your boss might suck but you don’t have to

I first wrote this blog post about the Peter Principle and why your boss might suck… but that doesn’t help you much. You already know they suck, so let’s talk about what the Peter Principle is how to avoid getting caught in the trap.

What is the Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle is a concept in management theory proposed by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1969. It states that in a hierarchical organization, employees tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, employees tend to be promoted to positions where they are no longer able to perform effectively.

That’s why your boss might suck. They could be excellent as individual contributors on a team, but incompetent in a management role that requires different skills.

It’s also why you need to be careful promoting your top sales reps to management. They may or may not be a great leader, and the only guarantee is that you lose your top sales rep.

The Peter Principle is based on the idea that individuals are promoted based on their performance in their current role, rather than their potential to perform in a higher role.

Employees who are highly competent and successful in their current role may be promoted to a higher role for which they are not well-suited or not trained for. This can lead to a decline in the employee’s job performance and the overall effectiveness of the organization.

Cool, so how do I avoid this?

To avoid getting caught in the Peter Principle, you can:

1. Be aware of what you really want: Management is often seen as the pinnacle of your career, but do you actually WANT to be a manager? Recognize that the role is very different than being an individual contributor (IC). You’ll be responsible for dealing with people, and solving their problems.

2. Continuously develop and improve your skills: You’re reading PM Better already so clearly you’re an expert here. Seriously though, you need to remain a valuable asset to the organization, and continuously learn more about your industry, craft, and how to perform better in all aspects of your role. Nobody wants to be bad at their role. It’s often caused by a lack of awareness of weaknesses. Continuously learning will help you remain on top of your game.

3. Communicate openly and honestly: Be proactive and communicate with your superiors about your career goals and aspirations. Also ask them for feedback. Feedback is a gift. Use it to identify areas where you can improve. Be open to constructive criticism and use it to improve your performance.

Backwards facing promos

At Shopify, one of the best tools I’ve seen for avoiding the Peter Principle trap is backward facing promotions. In short, you have to be doing the job you want before you get it. If you’re a PM and want to be a Senior PM, you have to be largely performing at the Senior PM level before you get the title.

On the surface, it’s no fun waiting for a promotion and doing that job “for free”. In practice, however, backward facing promos are very helpful for everyone. They give you time to test out the next role without the commitment of having to take it. You don’t have the title, so it’s easy to recognize if you don’t like the job and then you can revert back to your original position. There’s more room for mistakes and learning. If you don’t have the senior PM title then you’re not expected to operate at that level yet, so you can grow into the role without the pressure.

Your boss might suck but you don’t have to. Figure out what you want, continue to develop your skills, get feedback from others, and go after the role you want!

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