How Businesses Get Promotions Wrong

Two businessmen stand over a business woman who appears overwhelmed - Photo by Vlada Karpovich

The idea of promotion within an organization is something that I always took for granted. Meaning, if someone worked hard and was good at their job they would be promoted and continue to be successful. I had the perspective that, if they weren’t successful, it meant that they weren’t capable of that role. This is often called the Peter Principle: simply put, people will rise in an organization to their level of incompetence.

I’ve continued to learn and grow since my last update in 2019. In the past almost four years, I’ve had more opportunities to lean into business leadership, structure, and organization discussions and decisions. Research shows that the Peter Principle exists in organizations that promote employees based on current performance rather than potential ability. I’ve developed a belief the Peter Principle only exists in organizations that put the blame for incompetency on the employee rather than considering the role that current and prior managers played.

Why there are incompetent managers

The Peter Principle is often used to explain why there are individuals in management and higher-level roles that are unfit – they are incompetent. I’ve witnessed firsthand people promoted to a role and after a year of lackluster performance released from employment, moved to another role, or demoted due to an inability to effectively perform the duties of their new role.

I never witnessed a leader acknowledge that they hadn’t done their part to properly train, prepare, and mentor their direct report prior to promotion, ensuring they were competent before being in that role. In fact, I’ve only heard the opposite, that the responsibility is entirely that of the employee being promoted.

This form of promotion is built on the concept of static roles and responsibilities. A lot of thought and planning go into the structure of an organization. You need defined roles and responsibilities to hold employees accountable for their work product. In fact, research shows that employees like to have clearly defined “swim lanes.” Plus, with static roles and responsibilities, it’s easy to map one’s progress “up the corporate ladder.”

Let the responsibilities roll

There is another way of looking at roles, responsibilities, and promotions that allow for clearly defined responsibilities without having such a rigid concept of promotion. I prefer to see the expansion of a contributor’s role as a natural result of responsibilities rolling downhill.

Imagine a small company where the owner is responsible for payroll, AR, and AP, among many other things. Over the course of a year, the company grows rapidly and doubles in size. Due to the larger size, payroll, AR, and AP are now considerably more time-consuming than they once were and the owner realizes that they need to roll them off their plate.

It would be foolish to promote someone to “owner” simply because that is currently the role overseeing the payroll, AR, and AP functions. Rather, it makes sense to pass the functions down. It would also be foolish to hand off these critical duties without proper training in how to perform them, leaving the tasks in the hands of someone that is incompetent – “not having or showing the necessary skills to do something successfully.”

Promoting by assumption

Assuming that someone has the skills to do something at an acceptable level without training is a huge risk that organizations shouldn’t take, but they all too often do.

There is an assumption being made that someone will either learn in the role or will have already learned the functions of the role simply because they exist in the environment where those responsibilities are carried out. Too often, people that have shown great success in their current role are promoted without the training necessary to succeed and are then called incompetent.

I once heard a leader explain that a person failed at a new management role after a year “because they never worked under someone in that same role.” The employee in question reported directly to that leader prior to promotion. It’s true, this was a new role and a new set of responsibilities for the org, but the responsibilities were being performed by the leader prior to the role’s formation. It’s also true that the leader never provided the employee with any training to perform their new responsibilities. Yet, they saw it as a situational failure – the employee wasn’t successful because they didn’t have someone above them with the same title from whom they could learn through osmosis.

Grow the pyramid

A pyramid of people shaped wood toys of different colors laying on a white table in the shape of a pyramid

Rather than looking at promotion and growth as a ladder to be climbed, picture a growing pyramid. As the pyramid grows gaps open in different locations within the pyramid that must be filled. Blocks of functions that already fill in the pyramid grow in size and must be hewn and fit back in place. Workers on the pyramid have their hands full with the tools they need to work the pyramid blocks for which they are responsible.

As the pyramid grows, those at the top hand tools down to those below them. A chain reaction starts to occur where these tools are passed down from worker to worker. The workers must be trained on how to use the new tools and how to manage the blocks for which they are now responsible. Handing over a tool and its accompanying responsibilities without training is foolish, but, unfortunately, all too common.

Organizations that get this process right hand down responsibilities and train an employee at the same time. Once the employee shows competency with that responsibility they are ready for another. Your star performers are those that can learn a new responsibility quickly, become competent, and then make it their own and improve on the process and output. These employees also pass down their work and perform training to make room for additional responsibilities.

An organization configured for this style of responsibility transference can handle growth with ease.