Article: Why some star employees fail after a promotion

Performance Management

Why some star employees fail after a promotion

Is upward mobility really the only way to go within an organisation?
Why some star employees fail after a promotion

Many of us have witnessed the curious case of the brilliant team member who ascends to a managerial role, only to have their once-sparkling talents seemingly dim. They were stars when merely part of the ensemble, their skills undeniably bright. Yet, upon taking the helm, something shifts – their abilities appear muted, their shine dulled by the new responsibilities. This rise often becomes less of a promotion and more of a 'disservice,' abruptly halting what was once a promising growth trajectory.

Or perhaps this scenario sounds all too familiar because we are that person. Thriving when tasked with our own duties, we suddenly find ourselves floundering, feeling utterly out of place when charged with leading the entire team's efforts.

This phenomenon is more common than you might think and it has a name: the Peter Principle. Also referred to as 'Peter's incompetence principle', it presents a paradox: individuals can rise up the career ladder until they reach their 'highest level of incompetence'.

The Peter Principle: the perfect way to perish from success

At the heart of this issue is the fact that someone who may be effective in one role is not necessarily suited for a higher position. The reason: employees are promoted to roles that demand more responsibility, and unfortunately, not everyone is equipped for these challenges. Thus, an individual who excels in one position may continue to be promoted until they reach their peak of incompetence.

The term was coined by Dr Laurence J. Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. For many, it serves as a caution about the dangers of upward mobility within organisations, as many individuals, when promoted to positions of incompetence, trigger a cascade of inefficiencies and organisational issues.

Hence the question arises: is upward mobility the only way to grow within an organisation? No, it is not.

Rising to incompetence?

At its core, the Peter Principle is based on a seemingly logical premise: competent employees are rewarded with promotions. After all, it's a widely held belief that if someone excels in their current role, they should be capable of handling greater responsibilities at a higher level within the company. However, reality often contradicts this assumption.

Consider this scenario: an exceptional sales representative consistently surpasses targets and receives acclaim from superiors. In recognition of their outstanding performance, they are promoted to a managerial role overseeing a team of salespeople. Yet, despite their prowess in sales, they lack the managerial skills necessary to effectively lead and motivate a team. The result? A decline in team performance, frustration among team members, and ultimately, a net loss for the company.

"The most productive worker is not always the best candidate for manager," researchers said of the study as quoted by Forbes. "Consistent with the Peter Principle, we find that promotion decisions place more weight on current performance than would be justified if firms only aimed to promote the best potential managers."

Growth strategies beyond upward mobility

Diversification of skills. Rather than solely focusing on vertical advancement, employees can broaden their skill sets horizontally. Taking on diverse projects, collaborating across departments, or acquiring new competencies through training and development programmes can enhance one's value.

Lateral moves. Sidestepping the conventional path of upward mobility, lateral moves within the company can offer invaluable experiences and perspectives. Transitioning to different roles or departments allows individuals to gain a holistic understanding of the organisation, cultivate a versatile skill set, and discover untapped passions.

Entrepreneurial endeavours. Embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, employees can explore ventures beyond the confines of their current role. Initiating innovative projects, spearheading cross-functional teams, or championing internal initiatives can showcase leadership potential and pave the way for recognition and advancement.

Remote and gig economy. With the rise of remote work and the gig economy, professionals are no longer bound by geographical constraints or traditional employment structures. Freelancing, consulting, or establishing a side hustle can provide autonomy, flexibility, and diverse experiences outside the confines of corporate hierarchies.

Embracing career plateaus. Contrary to societal pressure for constant advancement, embracing career plateaus can foster contentment and personal fulfilment. Instead of relentlessly chasing promotions, individuals can focus on mastering their current roles, deepening their expertise, and finding fulfilment through meaningful work.

So, if you are a leader or a manager, don’t forget that lateral moves can lead to greater job satisfaction and career fulfilment than traditional vertical progression. There are many examples of successful professionals who achieved recognition and success through unconventional career paths, which do not necessarily imply promotion. So before you promote your star performer, think twice: are you really helping him or her grow?

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Topics: Performance Management, Talent Management

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