Are you incompetent?

We’ve all heard the expression ‘all managers rise to the level of their incompetence’ or words to that effect. On closer investigation of this phrase, it is actually known as the Peter Principle, and it was laid out by Canadian scholar Dr Laurence J Peter. He goes on to explain that the individual’s failure to be able to perform the role adequately is not a reflection of general incompetence, but rather that the job simply requires different skills to the ones possessed by the person trying to perform it.

Lots of organisations get caught out by the Peter Principle. Often it is because they promote individuals based on their loyalty or effort, rather than objectively promoting the person that is best equipped for the role, or making an outside hire. In researching the Peter Principle for this article, it became immediately apparent that there are a lot of resources out there for businesses to help them to avoid placing people in jobs they can’t perform, but very little in terms of advice for employees that want to avoid becoming that person.

For many of us to get ahead, our careers take us into management, whether it is right for us or not. And let’s face it, while many managers are blissfully ignorant of their unsuitability for the job in hand, others are painfully aware, and dreadfully unhappy.

How can the rest of us ensure that we don’t end up in the same predicament, climbing the career ladder until we are promoted into a role we can’t perform? To some degree, of course, we rely on our employers to recognise our strengths and weaknesses and avoid putting us in the wrong place, but ultimately it is up to you, and there is plenty that you can do to ensure you don’t end up falling foul of the Peter Principle.


Here are our top 7 suggestions:

  1. Plan your career in terms of personal development – a promotion doesn’t always have to mean managerial responsibilities. It might be that you become more technically specialised, or more consultative in your role rather than becoming a manager. If your employer can’t offer you what you want, it might be time to look elsewhere.
  2. With this in mind, if you know you have an appraisal coming up at work, take the time to prepare for it. Tell your manager what you value in your role and what you want to do next. If they don’t know what your expectations are, you are more likely to end up heading in a direction you don’t want to go.
  3. Take advantage of training and development that is offered to you by your workplace. This will help to arm you with the skills that you will need for the next stage of your career. Make it clear to your employer that you are willing to put your hand up for training that is appropriate for your career development.
  4. Be prepared to invest in yourself. Not all employers are forthcoming with access to training courses and accreditations so if you are serious about taking the next step, it might be up to you to ‘skill up’ on your own, or find an employer that will!
  5. Ask questions. Before you move into a new role, ask your employer what steps they will put in place to help you to gain the skills you need. Additionally, you should expect regular reviews where you can air any frustrations that you are having with your new role with your manager, and you should feel confident that you can ask for support if you require it, and that it will be provided.
  6. Speak up. If you have been promoted into a new position and you are struggling with any element of it, you need to talk to your employer and see what assistance they can provide. It is in their best interests to make sure you succeed.
  7. Be led by your talent and motivation rather than anyone else’s expectations of you. Remember that the further you progress into management, the further you will be from the hands-on parts of the job that many of us prefer – is this really what you want?

Sometimes the role just isn’t right for the individual, and it might be the case that you don’t realise that until you are in the role and hating it! Above all, don’t panic – remember that if your employer has promoted you, it means that they value you, and they won’t want to see you unhappy or risk losing you. Talk to them, and make it clear that you want to make sure they are making the best use of your talents.

In a follow-up article, I will be taking a look at how to work with a manager or team member that has been promoted to a role that they can’t perform.