Hi, how do I make the Peter Principle happen to me?
November 20, 2018 1:02 AM   Subscribe

How do I get my employer(s) to stop promoting people to management because they aren’t very good at individual contribution?

How do I win this office politics game without playing games? I’m good at what I do. Coworker A is supposed to be good at doing the same thing but is mediocre. A gets promoted to management because they need something to do. Usually it goes, “A is going to be the go-between.” Then “the project manager, but don’t worry, not your boss.” Then, of course, they become the boss. This causes problems because they don’t really know what they’re doing. In the current case I was hired because of that, and it looks like this person and their ways of doing things are going to become more entrenched.

I don’t want to be a manager but it seems like I have to get someone else hired who’s really good at what I do so I can manage them if I want to prevent someone who isn’t a good manager from becoming manager. This seems messed up, like I have to slack off in the best interest of the company. How can I break this cycle? Or is it just the way the working world will always be?

This is all in the context of smaller orgs where promotion is at the whim of the company owner. These are “good places to work” and though I don’t want to disclose my identity, discrimination protection doesn’t factor here. I actually like the impulse to find something new for someone to do instead of laying off. And pay levels are not a factor here (I think.)

Finally I realize I may have a problem. Please feel free to point out any glaring blind spots in my question. Seriously!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Peter Principle refers to the consequences of promoting on the basis of an illogical assumption that if an employee is good at their current role, they're also likely to be good at the next job up in the org chart despite its skill/talent/aptitude requirements being completely different. So, the Peter Principle isn't what's driving the bad situation you're in and it's not what you want to happen to you. (Just to get that out of the way.)

What you're describing -- promoting people incompetent in their current role just to 'give them something to do' -- sounds like upper management is either overly charitable or doesn't want to deal with the ugly / difficult business of firing someone.

Your question seems to imply that you're in this bad situation now, and also that you've been in similar bad situations before. This seems odd, because while I've certainly had employers who were resistant to firing completely incompetent people, those employees were generally left to muddle along in their existing roles; they weren't promoted to positions where they could muck up other people's work. So I'm skeptical that you really understand why your problematic manager is in his/her current role. "To give them something to do" is an oversimplification, and I think you'll have to study the situation more carefully if you're to get any real insight into it, or to have a hope of changing it.

I also think you should reconsider whether these small organizations that are resistant to firing incompetent people are really "good places to work." Maybe they're just places you thought would be good to work... and you were wrong? Because I can tell you from experience that the best places I've worked are not like this.
posted by jon1270 at 3:01 AM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

You're using the wrong rubric. Being a good individual contributor should never be the driving factor for a move to management. I spent my early career bewildered by moves where the most accurate didn't get the promotion. Then I realized you get measured on promotion by how well you'll do the next job.

Regarding your specific ask, you need to get better at communicating to managers. Your ideas/objections aren't being heeded for two key reasons:

1) you aren't explaining the benefits in terms of dollars and cents.
2) you are ignoring strategic benefits to the company in favor of tactical benefits local to your area

I mean, sure there's the case where an exec makes a decision that's flat out wrong. But you don't stay profitable by doing that consistently. These are reasonable humans capable of making good decisions if given the info in a digestible and trustworthy format.

Quite simply, you don't get to bitch about the boss if you aren't helping the boss to be more effective. That's actually the core of the job as an individual contributor, by the way.

You're too lean on data and specifics in this ask for me to suggest anything other than change yourself. And frankly, that's the easiest thing to do in any situation.
posted by bfranklin at 3:57 AM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

How do I get my employer(s) to stop promoting people to management because they aren’t very good at individual contribution?

Sorry to say, but I think the answer is, "You don't." It doesn't sound to me as though your role in your company puts you in a position to influence this kind of strategic decision. Believe me, as another highly opinionated front-line worker, I really feel for you—but you're asking for a significant strategy and culture change here, one that would have to be made by people at least two (and probably more) levels up from you.

The most you can really do is look for an opportunity to informally voice your opinion to somebody who might be in a position to at least ask for this kind of change, somewhere down the road. If there's someone high up who you have a good relationship with and who has a seat at the table in these types of discussions, maybe watch out for an opportunity to slip your viewpoint into a conversation with them.

Otherwise, let it be and just try not to worry about it. You say you don't want to be in management—presumably partly because you don't want responsibility for these kinds of decisions. That's OK, I'm that way too! But the flip side of that is accepting that you won't have a voice when these decisions are being made. You can let people around you know how you feel (but don't do it too much or people will start to get annoyed—stay in your lane and only stick your neck out when it makes tactical sense to do so) but it won't carry much weight. If you want better management, your best bet would be to change companies. Whether this is a big enough deal to merit such a move is entirely your call.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:00 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

The smaller the company, the quirkier the personnel decisions.

As to what you should do, every employer should get as familiar as possible with the requirements and problems one step up and one step down the chain of command, meaning their boss and any direct subordinate. Try to make it obvious that you are interpreting you responsibilities in the wider context of the business.

One possibility you don't mention explicitly is that you are being left behind because mgmt deems you too difficult to replace in your current role.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2018

In my own experience, particularly at smaller orgs, being personable and well-liked beats out general competence for getting promoted. Building rapport with the managers and HR folks seems to be pretty key — people often like working with and rewarding others who they like and get along with.

Another salty adulting thing I have observed is that dudes definitely are assumed to be competent and given more leadership opportunities by default. If you are a dude, keep this in mind and be supportive to the folks in your office who are not assumed competent because of unfair and discriminatory biases.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:40 AM on November 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

You're referring more accurately to the Dilbert Principle. In this case, knowledge of the Peter Principle is the one that is ensuring that you don't get promoted, because you haven't shown any knack for it.

Some enlightened companies have two tracks for employees - one management and one individual contributor. Sometimes it is not explicit. But in these companies, promotion to management is not seen as a "reward" for being a good individual contributor, but more of a lateral one (without a pay raise). There are positions where a manager is paid considerably less than their subordinates due to their value to the company (comes up sometimes on Ask A Manager). I don't know if this is the case here.

However, what steps are you taking that would put in someone's mind for the next management role? If you tell your boss, "I really like what I'm doing" then they are not going to take a step that would likely make your job less likeable. If you tell your boss "I like what I'm doing but I think I can use my experience in this position to make a bigger impact in this other position" then you would be considered more for this other position.
posted by meowzilla at 10:29 AM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Another viewpoint to consider is that the other individuals are being promoted not because they have technical expertise, but because they have qualities that make them good managers or supervisors. I work for a highly technical organization, which promotes based on technical competence. Because the only way to increase salary is to progress vertically, eventually you MUST become a supervisor in order to get promoted. This leads to supervisors at very high levels who are brilliant engineers, but really, really shitty supervisors, and sometimes even really shitty human beings. The flip side of this organization's culture is that if they try to promote people who are good supervisors, but not good technicians, the worker bees revolt because they (we) demand that our supervisors be as good as we are technically.

Of course the solution to this is to allow people to develop their supervisory/management skills along with their technical skills, and then select only those who excel at both to management positions. But some organizations drink the MBA koolaid, and think that a good manager is a good manager regardless of whether they understand the work that their workers are doing.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 3:42 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Good managers don’t really have to “know what they’re doing” when it comes to the technical day to day stuff; they only have to know enough to manage those who do know (like you.) You don’t give specifics so I don’t know if that’s the case here, but I’ve found that true in a variety of industries. I didn’t realize what a unique skill set management required until I became a manager, and honestly I had regarded my managers as “slacking off,” as you put it, when I now realize they were doing a decent job at management.

It’s not quite clear what your goal is here, since you say you don’t want to become a manger yourself, and you don’t seem to have any input in hiring decisions. I don’t think there’s a “political” move you can make. But you may want to reconsider aiming for management, because it seems to me you have ideas about how things should be run.
posted by kapers at 8:32 PM on November 20, 2018

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