Why the “Peter Principle” bugs me


You know the Peter Principle – that everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence. In organizations, we often act like the Peter Principle is a terminal disease. The only solutions are to demote this person or fire him. He has risen beyond his capabilities.

But wait – our capabilities are not fixed, static. We can grow. That means there is a third option – help this person develop. Not just her “hard” skills but also (and perhaps more importantly), the more complex development of how she sees and interacts with the world around her.

What if instead of seeing the Peter Principle as a death sentence, we saw it as an invitation? An invitation to true development, not just skill building.

Here’s the thing. Adults don’t continue to grow “automatically” the way kids do. We generally need a prompt, something that says “hey, you need to rise to the challenge.” If we care enough about that challenge, we can consider what the challenge may be asking of us. And then we can open to doing that work with ourselves.

Clients often come to me with this sort of challenge.

A division general manager, MaryAnne (not her real name) called me because she has an on-going conflict with her assistant general manager, Sam. Sam is a good performer, MaryAnne really wants him to stay. So she calls me for help working through this conflict. But as we explore, she sees that her desire to please people is blocking her ability to have a productive dialogue with Sam. That’s where the work is. That’s MaryAnne’s invitation to grow.

Next time you find yourself thinking someone on your team has hit the Peter Principle, consider it as an invitation to that person’s development. Maybe an executive coach can help or maybe there are other resources available. Just don’t limit the options to demote or fire. Development is the more powerful option.

If you’re ready to explore what’s next in your growth and development, I’d love to have that conversation with you. Please contact me