The Peter Principle: 5 signs you are a “Peter”

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Our research continuously shows that organizations are better at achieving results than valuing people. If most people will tell you that valuing people is critical to accomplishing results, why is it that so many organizations are unbalanced?

One answer can be found in the age-old Peter Principle (Peter & Raymond, 1969. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong), which states that organizations put themselves at risk when they promote people who excel at their current role rather than demonstrate the skills of the role to which they are being promoted. In other words, organizations often promote people in to management roles because they display excellent technical skills, but do not necessarily have the leadership skills to succeed. The result is that organizations end up with a focus on the technical aspects of work, but a dearth of skills and experience when it comes to engaging, motivating, and developing employees.

It is easy to think of people who fit this description, but how do you know if you are a “Peter?” It’s human nature to protect ourselves and view the “problem” as belonging to everyone else – in psychology we call this the self-serving bias, which means we distort the views of ourselves to protect our self-esteem. But having a realistic understanding of our strengths and opportunities, likes and dislikes is an important aspect of maturing and growing into our full potential.

It is important to note that the term “The Peter Principle” has made it seem like a bad thing to be a strong technical leader! This is hardly the case – we need people with strong technical skills and vision to drive the advancement of our products and services. The problem of the Peter Principle emerges when we promote people into the roles that do not utilize and maximize the very skills we hired them to optimize. We then ask them to take on new tasks and roles without assessing their passion about the new challenge and providing developmental opportunities. After all, who turns down a promotion?
Five Signs You Might be a Peter

So, how can you determine if you are a Peter? If you are in a new role where you have responsibility for managing the performance and development others, here are a few signs that you might be a Peter.

You’d rather do the work yourself. Many managers get nervous about delegating tasks and trusting their team to do the work. If you have ever found yourself saying, “it’s just easier to do it myself,” or, “it will take more time to show someone else how to do it than if I just did it myself,” it may be a sign that you enjoy doing the work more than managing the work that needs to get done.

You dread development and performance discussions. Have you found yourself regularly cancelling performance or development discussions with your employees because other more urgent matters come up? Do you get more enjoyment out of discussing project work or meeting customer needs than helping employees advance their skill sets? Good leaders put equal priority on coaching and development as they do getting things done, because they realize thing get done through people.

You get the most satisfaction from technical accomplishments. If you think back on your biggest achievements, what stands out to you? Is it launching a new product or solving a difficult customer problem? Or, do you take pride in seeing the people you have coached thrive and grow into their potential. If it is the former, it may be a sign that you are more passionate about being a technical leader vs. a people leader.

The development goals you set for yourself are focused on technical improvement. Think about how you want to grow and develop as an individual. Is your vision for yourself to continue to master the technical challenges of your work (e.g., becomes a more accomplished engineer, doctor, HR professional, or accountant)? Or, do you aim to improve your skills around hiring, building effective teams, providing feedback, and developing others? Good people leaders are passionate about developing their skills so they can be more effective and growing the talents of their team.

You view the topics of employee engagement, coaching and development, teamwork as skills that are not critical to the business. In any leadership training class, it is easy to see that there are managers who are engaged in the topic and those that are anxious to get the class over with so they can get back to their “real work”. If you find yourself dreading conversations focused on how to better coach and develop your team, it may be a sign you are a technical leader.

What to do if you are a Peter.

If you find yourself responsible for managing the engagement and development of others but are more passionate about your technical work, what should you do?

Assess your passions. Do you want to develop your leadership skills or would you rather stay focused on technical work? Reflect on the work you do each day and the types of things that you most enjoy doing. Understanding what gives you the most meaning at work is important to positioning yourself in a role where you can thrive.

Ask for feedback. Self-awareness is the first step toward being a good leader. Ask your supervisor, peers, and direct reports for feedback. How are you doing on the people side of leadership? Where do you need to improve? If you are truly not inspired by leading, then don’t fear returning to your roots. Unfortunately, organizations not only promote without consideration, but they also fear demoting those who are floundering in leader roles.

Focus on your genius. If you do decide you are most passionate about applying your technical skills, look for a way to structure your role so that you can focus on what you are best at. Consider finding a partner to help lead your team – someone who is passionate about employee engagement and development. Doing so will allow you to focus on your technical genius and leverage the genius of someone who is skilled at people leadership.

At the end of the day, if you are more passionate about the technical aspects of your work, you are likely to be more effective (and have a lot more fun) if you can assume a role that leverages your genius. Many organizations have developed career paths for those who want to focus on traditional management and a separate track for technical advancement. Getting the right people in the right roles to leverage their genius is best both for the individual and the organization. Failing to address this common workplace issue will leave many of you eventually “petering” out and frustrated.

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