Do you know why incompetent people get promoted?

Have you ever wondered why senior people in your organization seem incompetent? Have you ever looked at your boss and wondered “who has promoted him”?… You are not alone in getting these terrible thoughts. This is the general prevailing views of the employees in the organizations.

In fact the people in question are not at fault. They might have got promotions for their competence and good work till they reached to the level of incompetence. They might be the partial to full blown cases of Peter Principle. The organizations rarely fire such incompetent people, but this doesn’t happen always.

Now, what is Peter Principle?

Authors Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull proposed a theory in their 1969 book “The Peter Principle” which says that “in hierarchical structure, people get eventually promoted to the level at which they are incompetent. They spend rest of their career at that level”.

In simpler terms, we get promoted if we do the job well. We do the job well again and we get promoted again. We keep on climbing the ladder until we reach to the level where we are not able to do well – this is our level of incompetence. We stagnate at this level, get back to a lower position, change the job or eventually get fired.

Extrapolating the theory means that the people sitting at the top are all incompetent, or else they would have been promoted to the next level. While there is enough evidence to support the theory but every case doesn’t have to be the victim of Peter Principle.

In other terms every position will eventually be occupied by the individual who will be incompetent to perform his duties of that position.

You can also infer that, as you grow in your career, your level of competence decreases with each level. That’s why there are cases where performing individual are fired after promotion to next level. I am witness to many.

Peter Principle has been one of the hotly debated topics for HR. I personally agree with it only partially.

  • A person may not be promoted because there may not be enough positions at next level. This happens quite often in flat structured organizations.
  • An individual may have stepped down to previous level by choice. Senior sales person promoted to country head position may find his previous level more fulfilling and exciting or he may not like management. Every time it may not be the case of incompetence. Incompetent people take promotions but seldom make such choices of returning to previous level.
  • The individual may work hard to learn the skill set for the new position. He may get out of the trap of Peter Principle and never become its victim.

Peter principle

There are many ways by which an individual can beat Peter Principle.

 How to avoid being the victim of Peter Principle:

Prepare for the next level in advance: My father used to say “always act and behave like the person one position ahead and also learn the nuances of that position by whatever means possible”. Probably he discovered the perfect cure for Peter Principle long ago.

Get trained and update yourself: Start to train yourself the moment you are promoted to the next level. Ask your HR to provide necessary training. Pick your mentors. Do everything possible to catch fast.

Unlearn and relearn: People often make mistakes of carrying their baggage to the next position. Sales manager, after elevation to country head position, keeps on chasing short term numbers. He doesn’t realize that his position becomes more strategic and long term oriented. You have to consciously unlearn most of the things from previous level and learn faster for the new level.

Get ready for reverse promotion: Though this is technically equivalent to demote yourself but a positive way to avoid being turning into hopeless case of Peter Principle. This is extremely tough decision to make. Do it immediately once you realize that you are not able to cope with the pressure of new position and won’t be able to perform to your reputation.

Crucial initial days: Remember, the initial 45 to 60 days in your new position are extremely critical. Understand the expectations, network extensively, and reach out to people. Your initial impression will be crucial to save you from the negative impact of Peter Principle.

Go, work for the competition: The last resort, go out and join your competition. There is always a place for performing individuals in the market. This will certainly push your incompetence level a couple of notches higher, away from you.

Although the book was written as a satire long ago but it catches the attention of business scholars who see the Peter Principle unfolding, most of the times as an inevitable event for the people. In fact this is not only applicable to your career but equally plays role in every part of your life.

Do you think that work is always performed by middle level individuals who haven’t reach to their level of incompetence?

Do you know any miserable victim of Peter Principle? How do you avoid yourself being victim of it?

Hardeep Handa

Hardeep Handa

I am a seasoned marketing professional. I am ardent reader and avid writer. Management and technology equally excite me. I write regularly in my blog and

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  • Sakshi Anand

    Great post Vibhor. Now I can see why my boss is one of the most incompetent person in the organization. I wonder who recruited him and why he is not being fired….. Peter Principle.
    I love your blog, keep posting.

    • Thanks Sakshi. This is the problem with every organization. Learn to tackle it.