How to Tackle the Peter Principle

Have you ever heard of the Peter principle?

It’s a theory commonly, if not derogatorily, popularized in the 70’s that says people get promoted to their level of incompetence, at which point they stagnate; presumably feeling miserable, and making those around them feel the same.

Not a very cheery picture.

A closely related notion is the concept of an expert in their field being promoted to management.

You can probably think of someone in your field or even your organization who was a superb engineer / nurse / policy analyst / teacher / doctor / lawyer / journalist / etc. who got “promoted to management”…and then the Peter Principle seemed to kick-in.

This excellent practitioner was now a lousy boss.

Perhaps they were a tyrant, or maybe they were indecisive, they might be trying to please everyone or maybe they go their own way regardless of advice from their team.

I’ll bet someone you know is coming to mind right now.

We probably think “they didn’t have what it takes to be management.” But what does that mean? and more importantly, can it be fixed?

As we rise through our chosen career we need more and more leadership skills. These “soft skills” are anything but soft — they determine the success of our leaders which determines the success of the organization.

Soft skills = hard core bottom line.

These skills are called “Emotional Intelligence” or “EI.”

EI measures our ability to achieve success through working with others. EI measures a series of abilities and helps us see where we could be more successful in life and work by adjusting our approach.

The fascinating key to EI, and the most difficult concept for many of us “Type-A — harder, faster, stronger is always better types,” is to understand that EI is about balance. In measuring our EI and looking at where we want to improve we can see that “too much of a good thing” can be as bad as “not enough.”

For example, I’ve always believed one sign of a good leader is decisiveness. I prided myself on being able to make the tough decisions. “How could I ever be too decisive?” I thought, as I started learning about my own EI.

That’s when Executive Coaching helped me to see that as I became “too decisive” others began to withdraw.

My team saw me as intimidating, my colleagues saw me making decisions without engaging them, my clients didn’t feel heard.

There is no question, my ability to make decisions in tough situations was a huge benefit to the organization and a quality of a good leader — but allowing that strength to begin to outweigh my interest in hearing from others, showing interest in their input and having empathy for their point-of-view, was beginning to harm my ability to lead and thus my organization’s ability to succeed.

Why am I telling you this?

Well because there are great leaders among you who know they are struggling with this balance and maybe haven’t been able to name it.

More importantly, I’m telling you because EI can be learned and improved.

We start by taking a assessment of your EI now — how you see yourself — it’s remarkable how accurate the picture turns out.

If you’re open to it, we also ask people around you — your boss, your staff, your colleagues, and maybe even a couple friends or family, to take the same assessment of you. This is called a 360˙ assessment.

We have a great tool at Padraig to do this online, completely confidentially. Using the tool, we help you see where your EI is today and then most importantly we help you improve the areas you want to improve — to bring balance where together we think it would be most beneficial.

If you want to make changes we can help you do it through one-on-one coaching. The entire process is completely confidential.

While this works for bad leaders who want to improve, the really exciting news is that it works incredibly well for good leaders wanting to be GREAT leaders — learning to build on strengths while balancing a wider range of EI skills.

In fact, it is often good leaders who struggle the most with the “Peter Principle” — they are promoted because they are good, but they are given little support because they are good.

So, do you have to accept a career plateau, or is there just more to learn?

If strengthening your EI and, in the process, boosting your career prospects appeals to you, or you think it might appeal to someone you know, you can reach us at: or at (204)-818-0600.


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