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Promoted to incompetence

For decades, the Peter Principle has been a well-known adage.

According to this principle, managers “rise to their level of incompetence”. In other words, they exhibit particular technical skills in their role and, by way of reward, are promoted into management positions which require an entirely different skillset, and for which they are not necessarily suited.

Recently, researchers tested out this hypothesis, examining performance data for over 50,000 sales professionals at more than 200 companies. They predicted that organizations would “prioritize current job performance in promotion decisions at the expense of other observable characteristics that better predict managerial performance”.[1]

As suspected, they found that success in sales was predictive of promotion, and consequently that sales performance was negatively correlated with managerial success.

In his seminal 1970s research into why teams succeed or fail, Dr Meredith Belbin discovered nine distinct Team Roles—ways of behaving, communicating and interrelating with others—which formed the fingerprint of an individual’s contribution to a team.

For success at work, it is crucial for individuals to:

  • Understand and identify their strengths;

  • Play to these strengths when working;

  • Understand and value the roles they do not play, and seek to work with others whose Team Roles complement their own.

Whilst there is no one combination of Team Roles on which success is predicated, a person’s Team Role make-up influences their management style, and may mean that they are unable to play to their strengths as they did in a previous role.

A successful salesperson who is made a manager may well be promoted out of playing their preferred Team Roles. For example, a high-scoring Resource Investigator who thrives on getting out and meeting new prospects might find themselves ‘stuck’ in the office in one-to-one meetings with their team members.

An individual with Specialisttendencies might enjoy attending conferences to share the latest developments in their particular technology with clients. Once they manage others, however, they might discover that time constraints force them to generalise, so that they no longer find themselves at the cutting edge.

For organisations, the costs of promoting workers with lower managerial potential are considerable, and may not be the most fitting reward for good performance.

Instead, a little time invested in considering the behavioural demands of the role—and how well these fit with the individual in question—could avoid a costly mistake and reduce employee turnover.

Belbin Team Roles can be used not only to identify an individual’s key strengths and preferred working styles, but also to analyse the behavioural demands of a job, so that the two can be compared side by side.


[1] “Promotions and the Peter Principle” by Alan Benson, Danielle Li and Kelly Shue

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