How are incompetent people promoted

Peter principle: promoted to incapacity

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Sometimes you wonder how this obviously incompetent guy got into the executive chair ?! This question is not even new: US authors Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull investigated it as early as 1969 - and discovered the phenomenon of so-called peak incapacity, better known as the Peter principle (or "incapacity principle"). It says: In every hierarchy, employees are promoted until they get to a position in which they are incompetent. As a result, every position in every company is at some point filled by an employee who is completely overwhelmed with his task. A hierarchy of incompetence arises ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Promoted to Incapacity: What is the Peter Principle?

The study was of course meant to be satire. If that were true, sooner or later every organization would have to collapse because no one can anymore what he or she is paid for. Nevertheless, there is a real core to the provocative conclusion of the Peter Principle, as the following examples show: An engineer becomes a manager because he has been able to organize well - and fails because he cannot lead people. Or: A teacher becomes headmaster because he was a good teacher up to now - and fails because he is a bad administrator.

In fact, during his research, Laurence J. Peter found numerous cases where people were in a position BEFORE their promotion that they did excellently. That's why they soon rose - only to fail afterwards. Your own incompetence.

Especially in hierarchical structures, employees almost always qualify for the next level by optimally filling their current position. In doing so, however, they must inevitably reach their natural limit. At least temporarily. You grow with the task, yes. But at some point your own strengths are no longer sufficient.

Sometimes the Peter Principle is not an accident

The Peter principle also includes so-called pseudo promotions or "poisoned promotions": For example, when the boss has long since recognized the incompetence of his employee and transfers him to a "tinsel post". The drip is just as unproductive, but thanks to its example it at least spreads hope among the workforce, motto: "If this idiot got promoted, I might still have a chance." A risky game.

Poisoned transport: watch out for the trap!

The poisoned carriage is an insidious trap. It is not infrequently used to prepare for a termination. The nasty trick: Some employees with whom the management or the boss are dissatisfied are difficult to terminate or are very expensive. Services that fall short of expectations are usually not a reason for termination. All the more reason, the promotion offers the perfect excuse to get rid of employees. For example, by entrusting the person with an unsolvable or far too extensive task. In addition, the resources, the budget and the number of supporting employees are sometimes restricted. It comes as it should: At some point, the promoted must report to their supervisor and present progress or results that cannot be. The result: programmed failure.

In particular, those who mutate through the promotion to "executive staff" are legally in a much worse position than before. Executive employees are excluded from the scope of the Works Constitution Act (BetrVG). That means: the works council is no longer responsible for them, social plans do not apply to them. While a regular employee still receives a warning, the executive employee can be terminated immediately. He also owes his company greater loyalty. Because of this role model function, a breach of duty, which normally only entitles to ordinary dismissal, quickly ends in a dismissal without notice in the case of executives. Many are not aware of this.

Warning signs of a poisoned carriage

Therefore, before such a "poisoned" transport, it is essential to pay attention to a few warning signs:

  • Your position in the team is anything but secure or stable. The opinion of your colleagues about you is - to put it in a friendly way - moderate.
  • You are accepted in the team, but are considered a critic who is rarely satisfied with statements and instructions.
  • You do an excellent job and get on well with your colleagues, but rarely share your boss's opinion - and say so too.
  • You do a good job, but you know that you are a thorn in the side of management and are often perceived as uncomfortable.
  • There is, objectively, no reason to promote you. Other colleagues are much better suited and qualified for the position.

Regardless of whether you end up rejecting the poisoned promotion, it's a clear sign that your company or the boss wants to get rid of you. After such a signal, it is therefore always advisable to think about your professional future (in this company) and about changing jobs.

Why is there so much incompetence in companies?

The question still arises why (good) people keep getting into positions that they cannot adequately fill and, even worse, why they stay there. Psychologists speak of the “status quo effect”. Means: Anyone who has performed well once is more likely to continue to perform well in the future. Everyone knows the principle from school: Certain pupils get a “concrete one” from their teacher - even if some work is not so tight when viewed soberly. However, once the performance assessment has been carried out, it is inextricably attached to them and is no longer questioned.

In addition, there is the phenomenon that some bosses let themselves be blinded. After all, Blender doesn't just exist at management level. For example, anyone who explains loudly and repeatedly how much overtime he or she does after all has to be really hardworking ... Some managers are already making the mistake of confusing effectiveness with efficiency.

Avoid incompetence: Know your own strengths

As the saying goes: "Shoemaker, stick to your last!" All misfortune in the job begins with a wrong promotion for the wrong motives. If there are two surefire ways into being overwhelmed and dissatisfied, it's excessive ambition and nepotism. Both ensure that you end up where you might want to go, but not succeed.

Success often depends on how well you know yourself. And some people are always dissatisfied with the status quo and like they are eager to reach a position that clearly (!) Exceeds their abilities. A little challenge is good and important for personal development. But too much of it - and the Icarus effect threatens.

Turn down promotion? Sometimes that's better

Mountaineers show how it is: Sometimes a step to the side or a step back is the better (and safer) way to the summit. Of course, turning down a promotion isn't easy: your partner at home may not understand. The colleagues mock that he or she did not take it. The boss thinks you are ungrateful or worse: a "sleepy girl". That cannot be avoided entirely. But it can be concealed if necessary - by “creative inability”: In the event of impending and unwanted ascent, create the impression that you have already reached your level of ineptitude. Ultimately, it is a question of size to be able to self-critically admit one's own weaknesses. In addition, it is a form of mindfulness and self-protection: In the long run you will not be happy in a vacancy that has been filled incorrectly.

Avoiding wrong appointments: Appraisal without the Peter principle

The Peter principle has a Janus head. Of course, there are always two sides involved: someone who wants to be promoted. In other words, the employee who does not check self-critically enough whether he or she is suitable for the new job and accepts it self-satisfied. And someone who absolutely (and uncritically) wants to promote. As a result, managers also have a significant share of responsibility. Professional advancement and the associated selection of personnel is one of the most important management tasks of all. Managers have a duty to conscientiously find the optimal position for their employees, otherwise they will fail and damage the company.

What's more, the higher up someone is in the organization, the bigger the nonsense he or she can do there. The Peter Principle thus forces a corporate culture that enables people to change from obviously wrong positions at any time and without losing face. Means: Internal professional changes should not only take place upwards, but also downwards or sideways. Any professional reorientation (or promotion) therefore stands or falls with the appraisal interview. But that is exactly what has its pitfalls: especially with internal candidates, you think you know each other well. But it doesn't have to be. You should therefore pay attention to these three points during internal selection interviews:

Competence check

Most bosses choose internal candidates for new jobs because they have done a good job so far. A promotion from specialist to manager requires other, mostly (management) skills from the person concerned. Not everyone who has specialist knowledge and is hardworking can also motivate others, lead teams, organize projects and endure pressure without passing it on. Before such a promotion, candidates should definitely be asked or tested for the skills they will need in the future - for example via an assessment center or 360-degree feedback. Do not be confused by previous successes.

Career goals

Also find out what plans or goals the internal candidate associates with the new role. The question about it seems banal, but it is not. In contrast to an external candidate, this is not about finding out whether the person has already given a few thoughts to the job. After all, an internal candidate knows the store well enough. However, his ideas show which requirements must be met or created in order for the job to be successful. The answers reveal how extensively the aspirant perceives, plans, and mentally structured his new task - and how success can be measured if necessary.

Real feedback

Every job has specific challenges. With an external applicant, you would construct a comparable situation and ask him how he theoretically solves it or has already solved comparable problems. With an internal candidate, you can become more practical: Analyze real and previously solved tasks or conflicts together. This tells you a lot about existing skills and deficits (which can possibly be compensated for in advance with coaching). You may even discover skills that end up recommending the candidate for a completely different job.

For applicants again: Don't pretend! Use the job interview as an opportunity to find out whether the new job suits you. There's no point in going up and then failing at a high level. The Peter Principle ... you remember?

Opposite of the Peter principle: The Paula principle

The Peter Principle describes how a person endures a job for which they are unqualified is. However, there is also the opposite: the author Tom Schuller describes, analogous to the Peter Principle, the phenomenon that women in particular often persevere in positions for which they are overqualified. The "Paula Principle" he named can be observed across the board at all career levels and has several negative consequences:

  • It is unfair, because a good education should be rewarded accordingly.
  • It makes no sense, because it wastes resources: the shortage of skilled workers could be remedied in many places with women who are damned part-time stuck in low-skilled jobs.
  • It is disadvantageous because the associated lower income translates into lower tax revenues and a lower pension.

Despite all support measures, women often remain below their possibilities - even though they are often better educated. More women than men have been studying for years. Government actions and campaigns aimed at encouraging women to take up typical male professions also fizzled out. Schuller mainly cites these six reasons as an explanation:


In many areas women are discriminated against because of their gender. Certain areas are typical male domains in which women have to deal with sexist slogans or even sexual harassment. Jobs in the trade, in the police and in the armed forces are therefore repeatedly criticized. Some women are not hired in the first place, others do without right from the start or leave these areas.


Due to a lack of childcare options, women with children often switch from full-time to part-time jobs. This means that they are often excluded from promotions. Switching back to the old full-time position is also insufficient, as there is no entitlement to exactly the same job. Returnees would often be confronted with less attractive tasks.


The varying degrees of self-confidence explain why the Peter principle works particularly well with men and the Paula principle applies to women: women have less confidence in themselves, even if they are absolutely qualified for a job. The opposite can be observed with men: They also apply for jobs for which they do not have the necessary qualifications.


Men are better at professional networking. Women, on the other hand, build on past achievements and qualifications instead of expanding their networks. No contacts in the vertical hierarchy and little mentoring have left you stuck in low-skilled positions.


Even with emancipated couples it can be observed that they fall back into old stereotypes as soon as children come into play. This means that women automatically take on the lion's share of upbringing and caring activities (for example for family members).


As much as structural reasons and discrimination are condemned, women themselves set their priorities differently: They consciously forego a career because they value other aspects of jobs. Often they would pursue a horizontal career plan from the outset.

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