Keith's Notes

The Peter Principle

Mar 31, 2023, 7:18 PM

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We talked a lot about the Peter Principle a year or so ago at my company. Someone is doing great at their job so they get promoted. The do pretty well there so they get promoted again. At this point they are out of their element, doing more than they are trained for or have experience with and they start doing poorly. Worst case, they get fired for being a poor performer.

I'm a believer in this. I've been there myself numerous times in multiple careers. It sucks. I was lucky in my current company that I eventually got the opportunity to gracefully step back to my former role, where things are a decent enough challenge but not overwhelming (most of the time).

One "solution" to the problem that was being pushed for a while is to not promote someone until they were already functioning at the level of the promotion they were seeking. Thus, they've proven that they can do the work and the promotion is a no brainer. Of course, there's some obvious flaws with this, the big one being that you're expecting to do the job at level Y while they only have the title, pay and benefits of level X. And maybe a bigger one being that many promotions have you not just doing something at a higher level, but doing something much different. How can you "function at the level of" a manager or a team lead if you are an individual contributor without a team or people to manage?

An alternate method I read of was to let people "try" new roles. That was specifically towards moving to a manager role. Management is not for everyone. Someone might think that's what they want to do and discover that it's not for them. While it might be awkward to have them go back to being an individual contributor, it's better than losing a good person and punishing someone for trying something new. I don't think that would work quite as well for, say, going from Software Engineer to Senior Software Engineer though.