What is the Peter Principal?

The Peter Principal is an old concept defined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book. Despite being published over 40 years ago, it’s a book that will probably never date. It’s worth reading as it is very entertaining. The idea is “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”, meaning that employees tend to be promoted until they find themselves in a position in which they are unable to work competently. They will probably stay in that position until, disillusioned, they leave, or even worse stay in that position until they have demoralised everyone they are responsible for.

This is common when someone who has a top technology position is promoted to a management or executive role for which they have no training, experience or aptitude. Many start-ups suffer from this condition: extremely competent technical teams develop a popular piece of software, as the business expands along with demand for the product there is a shortage of people within the small company with the skills necessary to manage a larger team.

The problem is not necessarily a result of the new position being more difficult, it is simply that it requires different skills.

Here is some advice to avoid the Peter Principal affecting you or your company or start-up:

Develop great communication skills

I’d say this is one of the most important attributes for anyone with responsibility for others in a business. Anyone in a position of authority will not only have to develop great communication skills for managing their team but also to communicate effectively with those outside of the business.  Get communication skills training if necessary and if it is clear that communication skills is never going to be a strength of a particular candidate then a management role should be avoided.

Teach your managers to direct more and act less

If someone is used to doing everything  it can be hard to get out of the habit. A good manager will be able to clearly convey the task in hand and direct their team to accomplish projects, goals and objectives.

Develop Project Management Skills

Those promoted from a technical role to a management role will need to learn to change his or her mindset from one who solves problems to one who can multi-task a wide range of responsibilities and team members. Avoid getting too bogged down with solving particular problems, learn to delegate and plan using the people and resources available to you. If necessary invest in some project management training, it will save a lot of time in the long run.

Newly promoted managers need mentoring and management training. 

If a management role is totally new, I cannot recommend training enough. I know I am biased, being a training provider, but the shift from doing things yourself is extremely different from organising others effectively. So different that training can be invaluable to an individual who is going to suddenly find themselves in a totally alien environment. Managing people is not that easy, project management, communication skills , business management training would be the place to start. I know it’s an investment of time and money, and that budgets are tight, but the time and money saved by implementing great management skills will very quickly outweigh the initial investment.  It will also give you or your new manager the confidence to take on these new roles, and confidence is essential in a management position.

Consider rewarding employees

Instead of promotion consider rewarding those dedicated to their current job with a pay raise, while remaining in their current position.

Learn to effectively assess someone’s ability to manage before promoting them

Don’t make the mistake of losing your greatest programmers by promoting them to positions they will not be able to cope with. Management is not for everyone. Bad managers are hard to get rid of and an unhappy and incompetent manager is a huge drain on productivity and moral. Learn to recognise leadership qualities in people.

Avoiding the Peter Principal usually involves training, consider PRINCE2 training, a project management methodology, or communication skills training. At Silicon Beach Training in Brighton UK we provide some of the best management and leadership training courses in the world. Training in one of the most exciting cities in the UK is a great reward to offer current employees that have earned a promotion, whilst giving them the skills they need to competently fill their new role.

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