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Why do incompetent managers get promoted?

Two books 45 years apart explained it. If you want to get ahead it’s time to face the facts.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

In 1969, a book called “The Peter Principle” was published. It was written by Raymond Hull, based on the research of Dr. Laurence J. Peter.

Dr. Peter found that “an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs, until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

He further theorized that given enough time and positions, “every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Hence you end up with a whole bunch of incompetent managers on top…

I find the first point to be especially true when managers are hired in from other companies. Most corporate HR tend to put a lot of weight on a person’s CV and their past accomplishments when hiring for senior positions. Personally I think too little consideration is put into thinking about how the person will perform in future, especially if he is changing industries or roles.

On the second point, I’m not sure if every post will end up being occupied by an incompetent manager, but I do think that when a lot of managers realized they’ve hit their peak or comfort level, they then start to focus on playing politics instead of delivering results to hold on to their position. These are also the kind of managers who would only hire people less capable than them, for fear of being replaced.

Kicked or pulled upstairs

Although it was written half a century ago, I find that Dr. Peter’s theories still describe the corporate world today quite accurately.

For example, he talked about a phenomenon of being “kicked upstairs”. This is when a person gets promoted as a sort of encouragement, because higher management wants to show other staff that they too, could be rewarded with progression.

I’m sure if you’ve worked long enough in the corporate world you would have witnessed this happening. So and so gets promoted for staying long enough and being loyal. Management tiers being expanded so that people can get promoted — even though often times there is no pay rise; just a better sounding title.

Dr. Peter also had another interesting theory about getting promoted. He considered working hard and improving your skill sets not as effective as something called “Pull Promotion”. That’s when you get promoted — faster than usual — when a mentor or patron pulls you up.

No wonder there is so much ass-kissing in the corporate world. They must have read Dr. Peter’s research from the 60’s. Also explains the incompetency part; because they weren’t promoted for their competency in the first place.

“… leaders are (often) rated by their own bosses, which explains why leaders are so busy managing up — when good leadership is about managing down.”

Personally I have also heard many anecdotes about supposedly incompetent people ‘parachuting’ in from the outside to a high position because they tagged along with the right bosses. They got invited up the ladder in a new company after their patron moved over.

Over competency may get you fired

Interestingly, Dr. Peter also surmised that “super competent” people tend to “disrupt the hierarchy”. I suppose that’s a nice way of saying you’ve made your boss look bad by being more capable.

In such situations you’ll probably find yourself deliberately suppressed or edged out sooner or later — for some stupid reason or blame pushing.

To avoid this Dr. Peter advises “Creative Incompetence” — pretending to be incompetent but doing it in an area or manner where it doesn’t actually impair your work.

In his book “Stealing the Corner Office: The Winning Career Strategies They’ll Never Teach You in Business School”, Brendan Reid analyzed why incompetent executives got promoted and how he used those findings to get out of a 10-year career rut and eventually make it into the C-Suite.

He realized that being passionate, hardworking, focused on getting short term results and holding his co-workers accountable — all these attributes he held dear were actually killing his career.

“As great as your ideas may seem to you — ‘You’ are irrelevant.”

While I’m not sure all his advice holds true, I would certainly agree with his observation that:

“In practice people gravitate to, hire and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability.”

Everybody likes having an agreeable and flattering person around them. But I would personally add that Reid’s theory needs a qualifying statement — Competency doesn’t factor as much as ‘likability’ in most corporate promotions, especially when the ship is smooth sailing.

In a big company which is established, nobody likes being made to work harder. Everybody is just an employee, sometimes all the way up to the CEO. So a pushy and outperforming executive rocks the cushy lives of everyone.

However, when a company needs to grow or is in a crisis, CEOs or the Board would often hire highly competent and pushy executives, to crack the whip and fix the boat. Accountability and performance become important attributes.

So if you are a highly competent and aggressive individual, it is best you find yourself a job in a startup, be an entrepreneur, or work in a company that needs turning around.

Stable corporations favor individuals who play the popularity game well. Because when it doesn’t take much effort to deliver results, supervisors prefer subordinates who are non-threatening and likable.

The answer lies within

Reid wrote his book 45 years after Dr Peter and Hull did. Despite the years that passed and all the management theories that rose and fell in between, the fact that many incompetent managers are still being promoted today tells us that time and experience has no bearing on this phenomenon.

Like wars and politics, the answer lies in human nature. Unless a corporation was entirely ran on cold hard numbers and controlled by robots, competency and results will always be influenced by personal feelings and biases when it comes to promotions.

Know yourself, and where you will thrive. Find a results-oriented job if you are fiercely independent and opinionated. Climb the ladder in a big corporation if you are highly diplomatic or a crowd-pleaser.

There’s no point living in frustration and despising other people. At the end of the day the rat race is… what it is.

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