Bad boss blues? Avoiding the ‘Peter Principle’ in your workplace

Elevating star workers into managerial roles might seem like the right thing to do, but you could be sabotaging productivity, morale and engagement.


In the working world, few things are worse than an incompetent boss.

NPR recently ran a story about this common workplace scourge, and it shed a bit of data-backed light on how companies can do a better job of promoting the right people.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s social science correspondent, spoke with professors and researchers from Yale University about the “Peter Principle” and the perils of promoting workers based on “meritocracy” rather than specific skill sets.

After analyzing about 1,500 promotions from more than 200 companies over six years, the Yale researchers found that:

The best salespeople are very likely to be promoted into manager positions. And then when they become manager, they appear to be worse at the managerial job role. In other words, they make their teams less effective at selling products.

The issue, Vedantam believes, is not that companies are unaware of the Peter Principle, or that businesses are blind to the notion of not promoting people “to their level of incompetence.” The issue is overcoming the “bedrock American principle of meritocracy” that demands rewarding top performers with meaningful promotions.

Of course, foisting a natural salesperson into a supervisory role can work out—sometimes—but more often you end up losing a top worker and gaining a bad boss. That can quickly become a nightmare for staff morale and employee engagement.

To avoid this issue, the Yale researchers suggest:

You reward highly productive people through incentives, and you promote the people who have people skills. People who actually know how to get things done, work with other people—you promote those people into management.

In other words, try a “senior salesperson” promotion instead of shoehorning a natural seller into a leadership position. You’ll satisfy one of your star players, and you just might spare the rest your team from a case of the bad boss blues.

Read the full transcript of NPR’s report here.

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