One of the most common issues that I find managers facing is the 'Peter principle' - that someone has been promoted to their level of incompetence. Often these are people who have performed well (that is why they were promoted!), and so managers feel a responsibility to them. This story looks at what you might do to when you find the Peter principle in operation.
Sergeant Peter loved being with the horses. He would spend the day in the warmth of the stables, making sure they were well fed and watered. He exercised them so they were in peak fitness. When it was time for the hunt, he would groom them till their coats shone and tack them up with a harness whose leather and brass fittings had been polished to perfection. When the King and Queen were ready, he would help them up onto their horses and then rode just behind them, leading a spare horse.
He loved his job. He got pride from the horses, from the compliments King Philip and Queen Agatha gave him, from knowing that he did an important job well.
The only problem was the young people who would spend a couple of months in the stables as they learnt the ropes. They would arrive, wet behind the ears, and Sergeant Peter would take them under his wing. Not only did he tell them everything that he could about the horses, but he also to taught them so many other things; what was expected by the King, how to behave to the nobles and courtiers, how to get on with the senior members of the household.
These young people would move onto other roles. At first Peter was pleased when they did well, but after several years he found increasingly difficult as they got senior jobs in the Palace. They would have smart uniforms and a small team of underlings who would obey their commands. Peter could not help feeling envious, how unfair it was that he did not progress.
One crisp autumn day, as he was holding the stirrup for the King to mount, he summoned up his courage. “Your Majesty.” he stuttered, “You know I would do whatever you ask of me. Is there more that I can do than this role?”
The King, settling into his saddle looked down at Peter, frowned slightly, nodded and said, “Thank you Peter, we will think on it.”
It had been a good hunt, the King and Queen relaxed in their chamber, tired but invigorated. “Sergeant Peter talked to me,” said King Philip, “he seems to want a bigger job.”
Queen Agatha said, “He’s a good man, and has done well, we should find him something.”
So it was two months later Peter found himself promoted to Senior Bearer. His duties were to organise big events, such as banquets for visiting dignitaries, and make sure all the gold and silver was polished and ready for display. He had a smart uniform, with plenty of gold braid. He also had three young footmen to work for him.
At the first banquet he laid out the tables. He stayed up late making sure that the cutlery and plates were spotless, and the table decorations shone. On the day he fussed around trying to make everything perfect.
Unfortunately, not everything went well. The Ambassador from Sapulia complained that he had not been seated on the High Table. More seriously the young footman whose job was to make sure that the carriages were ready for the guests as they left made a total mess of it. As a result, the guests milled around in the Great Hall for half an hour while the carriages were gridlocked in the courtyard.
“Never mind, my dear” said the Queen late that night. “It was his first banquet; some things were bound to go wrong.”
The next event went worse. It was a visit from the King of Salvania. King Philip wanted to reduce tensions and show King Vincent that Mantava wanted better relations but was willing to be firm if necessary.
Unfortunately, the impression was damaged by the chaos of the welcome ceremony. Peter had not checked that the Palace had a Salvanian flag to fly, and King Vincent took great umbrage at the apparent insult.
Furthermore, Archbishop Anselm was 30 minutes late for the ceremony of blessing, He had been told it was going to be held in the cathedral rather than the palace chapel. Peter seem to be everywhere, rushing around ineffectively with lists of things to do, worrying about details, while his three footmen lounged around, looking increasingly surly and insolent.
What to do?
That evening King Philip summoned his Chamberlain. He was grim “That was a disaster!” he said, “What was Peter doing? He’s going to have to go.”
The Chamberlain promised to deal with it. He went to see Peter, who was depressed. “What am I doing?” He asked, “Nothing seems to be working. My three footmen are useless. They will not listen to anything.”
The Chamberlain tried to give Peter advice, how best to delegate, how to prioritise. But he knew Peter could not hear him, he was out of his depth and drowning.
That afternoon Father Sam came to the palace. He knew Peter well and was concerned to see him so low. He had a long talk with the Chamberlain, and then went to see the King.
“Peter is a good man.” said Philip. “But it was a mistake to promote him. He is incompetent at this job.”
“Whose fault is that, your Majesty?” enquired Sam.
The King look sharply at Sam. “Point taken, but what do I do?”
“You’ve got a choice. Peter was good at his old job but would be crushed if you demoted him back to it. You could provide more support, maybe someone to help him. Or you could find him something else to do, that suits his skills better. You might do well to talk with him, find out how he is feeling.”
A week later the King and the Chamberlain had a long talk with Peter. It was not easy, Peter had lost a lot of confidence and was defensive and angry.
Three months later there was another opportunity in the Palace. The Hunting Lodge in Safernoc Forest needed a bailiff. In some ways it was a small job, there was just a cook and a stable boy attached to Lodge. However, the bailiff was responsible for making sure the King and Queen were well looked after on their visits. Peter was offered the job and accepted it with alacrity.
The Chamberlain made sure that Peter had the opportunity to learn the skills he needed, sending him to find out about the finances and maintenance. He also asked a recently retired bailiff to spend some time with Peter.
A year later Father Sam found an excuse to visit the Lodge. As he came up to the gate, he was greeted politely by the stable boy who then scampered off to find Peter. While he waited Sam noted, approvingly, the neat garden and well-kept yard. Peter came up, smiling broadly.
“You seem happy!”
“I am” said Peter, “I may not have a smart uniform now, but this is where I should be.”
The Peter principle, named after the satirical book by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull, is well known. It says the people are promoted to their level of incompetence, and then stick there. This means individuals, who are often good in their previous role, find themselves out of their depth and not coping. They are a liability for the organisation and often unhappy.
Leaders often struggle with what to do when they encounter the Peter principle. Of course, the best thing to do was to avoid it! Take the promotion and appointment of people seriously and do it for the right reasons. Often people with the best technical skills (like Sergeant Peter and his horses) will not make the best managers. Think how you are going to reward the experts (engineers, doctors, creative types) who are vital for success of your organisation, so they are not forced by their ambition into roles where they will not be productive or fulfilled.
Give new appointments the support (training/mentorship) they need to develop so they have the greatest chance of being competent. They need to have a clear understanding of what they are expected to achieve in their new position.
If you (or your predecessor) have made a mistake in placing someone into the wrong job, then you need to take action. Maybe that will involve more training, though sometimes it may be best for the individual to leave the organisation. The alternative is to look for other roles. If a real job can be found that the person is better suited for then you may find your efforts rewarded. You should avoid the temptation of creating a useless role (vice president of paperclips) even if that means you can avoid a difficult conversation with the individual.
Remember, most ‘Peters’ are not universally incompetent, they are just not competent in the role you have given them.
The Lonely King
Other posts in the Lonely King series available here
An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.
Web page: ajtg.co.uk
Blog page: andrewgeorgeblog.com
© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved
Published, 12 November 2019