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How Do We Overcome the Peter Principle

Don’t want to be trapped by the Peter Principle? No worries, it’s completely doable.

Written by Laurence J Peter, “People in an hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence” is a well known phenomenon that we use for water cooler jokes about others, at the same time hoping that others don’t make the same joke about us.

Why do such situations happen? It’s because we are usually promoted due to us being good at our current job. However, the next job isn’t just “more of the same” – it’s in fact a different job, and we struggle as a result.

Organizationally, this suggests that promotions should not be tied to the current job performance. Promoting someone to the next level loses a good performer at the current level and creates a bad performer at the next level.

Unfortunately, things are just not done this way. There are cultural expectations that promotions are part of the carrots for a good job performance. Compensations and prestige are also usually correlated with promotions as well. Most people want to get promoted, and most organizations oblige.

So, how do we as individuals overcome the Peter Principle trap? Is it possible to overcome, and how can we ensure that we are ready for the next level?

The short answer is yes – we can overcome the Peter Principle, because every job is learnable. No one is born with the skills to do any of these jobs, and everyone learns as they go. The key things to recognize here are:

  • The earlier you know what skills you would need, the sooner you can start to prepare for them.
  • If you can start preparing for your next role before you start, you have a chance to not suck, or even star, in your next role.

So, when you are having conversations with your manager about promotions, don’t just talk about giving you the promotion. Ask about what the next role is all about, the expectations, the skills needed, the success factors, and how to prepare for the next role. You don’t want to just be thrown to the deep end of the pool – you want to get in as well prepared as you can.

Work with your manager to craft a career development plan, create opportunities where you can hone the skills needed for the next level now. Reach out to people at the next level in your network and ask them for advice. Get yourself some mentors. Read books and take lessons as appropriate. Get yourself trained and prepared.

With enough preparations, you will find that you can hit the next role with stride, or at a minimum reduces the gaps. Sure, there are things that you cannot fully internalize until you experience it for the first hand, but any preparation you can do ahead of time will make things easier once you start. Luck favors the prepared.

So go ahead, get yourself started. You will thank yourself in the next role.

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