Overcoming Overpromotion

How many of us have experienced “horrible bosses” in our organization?

Have you considered how many of these horrible bosses are the result of overpromotion?

The Peter Principle, first recognized in 1969 by Laurence J Peter, introduces the idea that managers often rise in organizations to one level above their competence. Simply put, people are promoted for doing well at their jobs until they reach a level at which they simply can’t keep up. At this point, they are no longer promoted, remaining stuck at a level which is one level above what they are good at. Once stuck, these overpromoted individuals often become dissatisfied with their jobs and seem to simply give up.

Overpromote circle

This bring up an interesting question:If we have known about overpromotion for half a century, why aren’t we doing anything about it?

One possible answer is that because we assume basic competence is the issue. We fail to ask the question, “where does competence come from?”

If competence is defined as the ability to do something well, then anyone wishing to increase competence needs a combination of two things: access to knowledge and motivation.

Did you know that about 25% of managers has never had any managerial training at all? A further 40-50% report that training at the managerial level was insufficient. This leaves about 25% of managers who feel they have been adequately prepared for their jobs. We expect managers to be competent, yet the data shows that these managers are not receiving the training needed to develop managerial skills. Without the opportunity to gain necessary knowledge, it’s no wonder they’re struggling!

Motivation is far more personal. Consider that an accountant may enjoy working with numbers, an engineer may love designing buildings, or an editor may find purpose correcting grammar mistakes. Interest and passion lead to extra effort and in most cases increased success. Unfortunately, these efforts are often rewarded by promotion to a role that has little to nothing to do with the original passion. Unless the accountant, engineer, or editor can redirect their passion into management, they are likely to become dissatisfied with their new roles quite quickly.

So, what can you, a people leader in your organization, do to prevent overpromotion?

  1. Begin by understanding what makes a good manager. What competencies are necessary at the manager level? What skills do you wish you had been told about before assuming your first management role?
  2. Next, develop managerial skills for your supervisors and managers as you would technical or customer service skills for your front-line employees. Provide new role training for promoted staff. If your organization has missed the mark training managers in the past, consider investing in managerial training for all people leaders.
  3. Support the success of new managers by giving them time to learn their role, as you would any new employee. Consider temporarily decreasing their workload so they can focus on learning and getting to know their new team. Productivity will be higher in the long run if your managers have had a few weeks to get their feet under them.
  4. Create alternative career path options. The “up-or-out” model prevalent in many industries is outdated to members of the flexible, modern workforce. Specialist and technical roles can harness your high performers’ expertise without requiring them to climb a managerial ladder they may have no interest in.
  5. Most importantly, get to know your people before you promote them! Understand why they have chosen this industry or career and what they hope to accomplish. Ask – don’t assume – whether they might be interested in leading a team. Work with each employee to explore a variety of growth opportunities, whether managerial or specialist. Check in regularly and keep the conversation going – just because they aren’t interested in a manager role today does not mean you should overlook them when another position opens in a year or two.  

Your Engaged Assignment: Do you have a high performer who has recently been promoted to management and is struggling in their new position? Take the time to invest, support, and coach them on their new role. Remember, new roles require new skills.

Looking to upskill your managers with people leadership skills? Consider taking a workshop in The Art of HR – we created it for exactly this purpose.