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Peter Principle in Practice

It’s a long time ago I posted something in my Thoughts on Tuesday category. Here’s one for you, the Peter Principle. I first heard of this in a management podcast and since am seeing it all around me. Here’s something to think about on your Tuesday.

Promotions

The Peter Principle goes on the assumption that people are either too competent for their job level, or slightly incompetent. This is a direct result from promotions; when you promote employees who are doing a great job, they find themselves in more difficult jobs after every promotion.

With every promotion, your level of competence matches the job description more and more. Until that final promotion. You have struggled in your previous job but by sheer hard work and dedication, you managed to book some results. Management sees this, obviously, and decides to promote you. Boom! Now you’re in a position where you’re slightly incompetent, it’s one step too much for you.

(In)competence

The theory behind the Peter Principle is that in organisations where promotions are based on past performance everybody will level out at the level where they are slightly incompetent.

This makes sense when you think about it. As long as you keep performing well you will be getting promotions. Then suddenly you get your last promotion.

At this new job, you have a hard time getting everything done. You are working slightly more than you are capable of. Your results regress to the mean and the promotions will stop since you are not an over-achiever anymore.

Up or Out vs. Up and Down

There are lots of companies that live by a strict up or out principle. That means that as long as you keep getting promoted, everything is fine. As soon as you underperform, you’re out.

Now for some of you, this might sound a bit harsh. In reality, for these companies, they’re making sure they’ve got their top talent over-achieving. What they forget is that resources (people) should be allocated to where they perform best.

That brings us to the up and down principle. In some organisations, you get promotion after promotion, until suddenly you find yourself living the Peter principle.

Once your manager sees this, you’ll be moved to another position where you might perform better. Don’t view this as a demotion! But rather as a chance to do more meaningful work while not running the risk of being burnt-out in a few months.

Am I Incompetent?

After I switched jobs a year ago I work in a higher position than before. Not that I’m managing people, but I certainly have more responsibilities. Within this role, I’m actively being coached to perform better to be able to receive a promotion during this year.

Even today I feel a bit overwhelmed. It will probably wear off, I’ll get used to it. At least I hope so. With working towards the promotion I might be one of the youngest employees in our company to achieve get to that function. Sometimes I wonder, am I working towards my Peter principle limit?

But then again, the imposter syndrome is also a thing in many young, high-performers (such as consultants). Well, that might be something for another “Thoughts on Tuesday”.

Did you experience the effects of the Peter principle? Please share your story below.

5 thoughts on “Peter Principle in Practice”

  1. Yes I know the principle and I am currently at my max-1 level (at least to my opinion ;-)).

    In your text I read a lot about “working towards the promotion” and coaching for your next promotion. I hope you are not only focusing on promotions. To my opinion personal growth is far more worth than a promotion. A promotion depends on you emoloyee while personal growth helps you for the rest of your life.

    • Hi Mr. G! Indeed I don’t focus solely on the promotion. My growth is about more than just the promotion. It is about having better work, being more influential, learning new skills (both professional and personal), etc.
      The promotion itself will be a fancier job title (which means more influence with clients, important in consulting), and a significant pay rise.

  2. First of all: nice alliteration in the post title! ;)
    Then: promotion … what’s the definition of promotion? More money? Fancier job title? Status? Power? Extra tasks? Responsibilities? A combination of these? I have been promoted (mainly) tasks and responsibilities wise many times. I think a promotion should be accompanied with a budget for some education (workshop, course), or at least some sort of coaching. This way you can indeed grow into a new role.

    • I do get some coaching from one of the directors in our organisation so that’s nice. The promotion will mean a fancier job title, significant more money, but also some additional responsibilities. Regarding education there’s enough budget to keep learning every year.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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