4 simple tips to stop incompetent employees from occupying important positions – The Peter Principle

Mr. Amit Mehta who runs a manufacturing unit looked worried when I met him last week. During our meeting, he mentioned that Mr. Marathe who was recently promoted to the position of Production Manager is not performing as expected. I recalled that Mr. Marathe (who was working as Asst. Production Manger before) was a good performer & Mr. Mehta was appreciative of his work in the past.

Peter Principle

I call this as a typical case of a good soldier becoming a bad captain.

Before we go to the tips on how to avoid such situations, let me tell you about an interesting observation made by a Canadian educator, Laurence J Peter.

During 1960s, Laurence Johnston Peter, while observing the competencies of people in industry, found that the majority of employees function well till they continue to work in the same capacity. However, when they get higher responsibilities they bungle their jobs, frustrate other colleagues and eventfully fail in their new responsibilities.

Peter after studying number of cases concluded that people normally function well and continue to function well in their new role provided this new responsibility is within their capability. Once these people are assigned jobs beyond their capability, their performance starts deteriorating.

Eventually Peter developed a principle called ‘The Peter Principle’ which he summarizes as ‘Every person tends to rise to the level of his / her competence’. The principle explains that in any organization, people will keep on rising so long as they work competently. Eventually, they will reach a position at which they are no longer competent. In other words, they have reached to their level of incompetence. Unable to earn further promotions, they typically remain at that position clogging the pipeline for those who can still move up.

In our consulting assignments too, we come across number of cases where employees have shown excellent performance in handling one level of responsibility but have fared poorly when their scope of responsibilities was increased.

This incompetence, however, is not necessarily a result of the higher-ranking position being more difficult. Majority of the times, I have observed that the new position requires different work skills which the employee does not possess. For example, an engineer with great technical skill might get promoted to project manager, only to discover he lacks the skills required to lead a team.

Having discussed the Peter Principle, I wish to leave you with some tips from my experience to deal with such situations

1) Develop a clear policy of dealing with those employees who have reached their level of incompetence. Many organizations have a policy of giving a long rope for smooth exit. I find it as very practical approach for maintaining the general moral and avoiding resentment from those beneath them in the organization.

2) Identify positions which don’t require team efforts to succeed. Many times the failure to perform in a new position stems from inability to manage a team. In such cases, these positions (which don’t need team efforts) can be useful to retain people who have shown good performance in past.

3) Don’t promote for effort. While laudable, effort alone doesn’t drive the business. Promote only when you see display of capability & initiative needed for higher responsibility.

4) Train people for new positions. You may also put employees as shadow to the current position before they take on the title or promotion. For positions for which no internal capability is present, it is advisable to use outside consultant for specific time frame rather than handing over to internal people directly.

The first 2 tips are remedies if you already have ‘bad captains’ while the remaining 2 will help you prevent ‘good soldiers’ from becoming ‘bad captains’.

What has been your experience in dealing with such situations? What helped you effectively resolve such situations? Please write to me using this link.


Note 1:

The article, ‘4 simple tips to stop incompetent employees from occupying important positions’, is written based on my professional experience at Pinnacle and other companies.

Pinnacle specializes in working with the management of family-owned companies to craft & implement HR Strategies to accomplish their business vision & goals.

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