27 September 2023

The Peter Principle that peters out and how to avoid it

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Laura Stack* says work promotions can be exciting or daunting — but even if the new job is not quite what you expected, there are still ways to shine.

Laurence J. Peter is famous for the business principle named after him, which states that workers are promoted to their level of incompetence.

In other words, the better you do your job, the more likely you’ll get promoted into a position you’re not good at.

I don’t necessarily agree with the Peter Principle, but I have noticed that to paraphrase author, Terry Pratchett: “If you dig the best ditches, they give you a bigger shovel.”

Unless you fight it or make yourself irreplaceable, at some point someone will promote you to a higher position.

For those who crave success, this is a primary goal of work.

For others it’s not as important as the pay that lets one do things like eat and pay the mortgage.

Promotion comes as a reward for a job well done — ironically resulting in more work.

For the fully engaged, it also provides the opportunity to accomplish more for the organisation.

You may have to work harder, but isn’t that expected when you’re promoted?

Consider these five ways to hit the ground running as soon as possible after a promotion:

Study for it:

If you know you’ll be moving up the ladder soon, don’t just sit there like a lump — prepare.

Discuss the position’s requirements, official and otherwise, with your direct supervisor or manager.

Meet with someone in that position (including the current job holder, if you can), and discuss what to expect and what you need to learn.

Start filling in the gaps in your knowledge, on your own time if necessary.

Take any required or optional training and classes to hone your abilities as you prepare.

You’ll still have a learning curve, but if you’re willing to work smarter and harder for a while, the transition will prove much smoother.

Meet your team:

This is especially necessary if you’re now a manager with direct reports.

Discuss your new position and be honest about how you’ll need the team’s help to transition into the job.

Acknowledge that you may not fill the shoes of whoever was there before.

However, you’re willing to put in the time and effort to maximise everyone’s output and make your group a role model for others.

Discuss any changes you’d like to make and ask for feedback.

Reset goals with higher benchmarks:

Whenever you achieve one goal, celebrate and then set another.

Maintain closer communication with your supervisor:

You’ll probably want to maintain a tighter communications loop, especially early on.

As part of the process of managing up, you’ve already determined their favourite method and frequency of communication.

Without going overboard, keep them apprised of how things are going, and don’t hesitate to ask for help if something pops up you don’t know how to handle.

Learn on the job:

Most positions require some measure of on-the-job learning, and this is no different.

Don’t stop studying once you’re in the new seat and show willingness to put in the extra hours necessary to learn more quickly than normal.

That could mean more reading, additional training, or (for the moment) working a few more hours.

The Peter Principal is a favourite of cynical observers, because it seems so obvious to them and in fact, it may often come true.

You may even have hit a level where you found yourself floundering in a rising tide that somehow wasn’t lifting your boat as promised.

However, if you’re pushed upward into a position you’re not entirely suited for, you needn’t fail or even flounder.

A modicum of preparation will give you an opportunity to put your best foot forward from the beginning.

You, as an intelligent, thoughtful person, can succeed wherever you find yourself.

*Laura Stack is a keynote speaker, author and authority on productivity and performance. She has written seven books, the latest being Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. She can be contacted at theproductivitypro.com.

This article first appeared on Laura’s blogsite.

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