Empirical evidence for the Peter Principle (or, why bosses are so incompetent)

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/06/12/promoted-to-incompetence.html


Known good management traits: people skills such as empathy, lower “dominance” scores (but not too low, or you’re a pushover), and motivation.

Known bad management traits: narcissistic traits, high and low “dominance” scores.

And yet we rarely promote the former, but frequently the latter. Hmm.


Excepting those folks who have reduced opportunities due to structural and active discrimination. Who are often overqualified for the positions they’re in.

1969’s managerial workforce doesn’t match today.


during the 2016-17 school year my 4-6 intermediate campus was under the “direction” of a new principal. he had a doctorate, he had a couple of years experience as an assistant principal at a 1-6 elementary, and he interviewed exceedingly well. what could go wrong?

as it happened, almost everything. at his previous campus the assistant principals, who were numerous, were scattered among many jobs. our guy had been in charge of ard meetings, 504 meetings, and textbook inventories. at no time did he deal with students or parents (except at ard or 504 meetings, nor did he deal with student discipline. he had no idea how to handle anything except the three previously mentioned responsibilities. our campus was a complete and total shitstorm by the end of the year in every grade with a cycle of “try one new thing, abandon it in favor another new thing . . .rinse, repeat” regarding discipline. added to that was a 6th grade whose overall behavior was the worst i’d seen in 11 years and the second worst i’d seen in 23 years of teaching, it developed into a complete and total clusterfuck. then, just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse he got hired as a superintendent, that’s right superintendent, of a small private school district in dallas. did i mention he interviewed extremely well? what made things worse was that he was given a contract with the new district 6 weeks before school got out so not only was he totally incompetent he was also completely disengaged.you might think that would make things better but sadly, it didn’t.

in this case he was promoted past his level of incompetence.

edited to explain why his being hired away from the district made things worse.


It makes sense that the skill set needed to be great at sales is different from the skills needed to be a great manager. Since they found a negative correlation rather than just no correlation, it seems that some of the traits of successful salespeople are actively bad in management. I got hired to teach LSAT test prep because I scored well on the test. But I always thought that someone with actual teaching skills would do a better job of helping students. Having a teacher who sees the answers as intuitively obvious is a disadvantage. Management and teaching are both things that a lot of people think anyone can do, but are hard to do well, especially without training.


News story at 6: WATER IS WET.


They wouldn’t want the promotion if being in management didn’t pay better, which is often seems to be a key reason for wanting to be in management at all.


I’m GREAT at sales! GREAT! The secret? I’m obnoxious, and work like a mule. I’m thoroughly self-aware that I would be really bad at management, and will dodge all attempts at putting me in charge of someone else.


Also a good point. Management should be its own specialty, or a sub-specialization for highly specialized industries where you have to know a lot about the work to even have the slightest idea what’s going on like in engineering, and have its own set of certifications (including a state or federal cert, so if you fuck up too much, e.g. sexual harassment, you can permanently lose your ability to be a manager or executive). And it shouldn’t pay much higher than “regular worker” pay, because even very good managers don’t add as much value as good employees, TBH. At best, they remove roadblocks, communicate bad shit with a good spin, and help keep motivation up. It’s challenging people work, but it’s not as rare of a skill (by a couple orders of magnitude) as being able to write good code.

It should be more of a servant role than a “clan leader” role, and companies that treat managers more like the former tend to do much, much better in the short and long run. Especially in specialized industries.


But if we paid the workers actually creating value for the company more and the CEO didn’t make 500 times as much as their median worker, the socialists would win.


New terminology:

Instead of Supervisors, let’s have Intervisors.


I work at a non-profit focused on ways of improving, developing and helping the early childhood workforce. We have two ways of thinking about advancement here. Professional development is defined as finding ways to become more excellent at the job you are in, following a set of defined competencies. This is distinct from Career Development, where you figure out what kind of job you actually want to have, and seek promotion. With the latter, you do deep, guided self-reflection on how you want to impact the field, and what your strengths are (be a teacher, be an out-of-classroom specialist, be a manager/director, be in the arts, be in technology). Management and leadership also has it’s own set of competencies within our Core Body of Knowledge.

The Peter Principle has strong effects in early childhood, because being a teacher is extremely different from being a program director (Entreprenuer + HR manager + Communications + Budgets + Social Worker + Therapist) but it is often the teachers who get promoted up into the managerial role, with little to no training or education requirements. New York is working to fix this (we’ve been pushing them) but it’s a huge case-in-point. Of course, it helps to have worked in the trenches as a teacher to have that perspective, but that’s different from just “rising to the top.”

A huge issue is also that we don’t respect (pay, glorify, recognize) excellent, non-management folks. We’re working on a Master Teacher role that would see a pay-bump and mentorship opportunities to give folks who want to remain teachers an opportunity to grow without having to climb up the ladder.


Oh god this a thousand times this. One reason American math education is such a horror show is that nearly all the teachers love math and have fantastic intuitive math sense, so very few of them can teach anyone who doesn’t have those characteristics, and it’s a vicious cycle that maintains itself indefinitely.

Unfortunately, in practice, certification creates aristocracies that are not always related to ability, but are always related to unearned social privileges and cultural shibboleths. Children of doctors are nearly 14 percent more likely to be admitted into medical school than are comparable nonfollowers, for example.


Most good tech companies already know this. If you are a developer and want to progress in your career, there are generally two tracks: a manager track, for those people who want to deal with people (who goes on which team, making sure team members don’t hate each other, doling out vacation days, etc), and technical leaders (managing the backlog, mentoring new employees, code reviews, etc). Both require people skills, but very different kinds of people skills.

A good manager is often not a good technical leader and the reverse is true, too.


If you look at management positions now-a-days, you’ll often find “engineering degree required” Engineers become engineers because they like designing and building things, not managing people. So, in our infinite wisdom, we take the best engineer and put him in charge of other engineers, or worse, people. And on it goes for sales, for marketing, for quality control, etc., etc.


My boss is the Poster Child for incompetent nincompoop rich white guys that just so happen to have a rich Daddy that shoved them along so as not to be embarrassed with a dotard hanging around the house in his 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc.

And yes, he loves the Donny Two Burgers…


One of the best ways to overcome this is to have separate career tracks for leaders and individual contributors, with advancement and compensation that is parallel and equal. A principal engineer should be getting paid as much (or more) than a director of marketing, for example.

Let’s also not conflate leadership and management. Leadership is a calling; a talent. Management is a set of skills that can be taught and learned. When people complain about bad management, they are often talking about bad leadership. That’s not to say that a lot of people get promoted into management positions without any kind of training, who might be good leaders, but haven’t been adequately trained. That’s a problem, too. But it’s one that can be overcome (and often is, even if there is a lag between promotion and training.) But trying to take someone who doesn’t have a nanogram of leadership talent and ask them to lead is a disaster waiting to happen.


I like what you’re saying here, but I think manager could be a calling if it were presented in as sexy a package as “leader.” There are definitely natural dispositions and talents that an excellent manger will have, regardless of skills. I was a shitty teacher because I can’t visualize time, and have a horrible time trying to break up projects and tasks into manageable chunks, and while I can come up with a thousand points on the pro or con side of an argument, please don’t ask me to weigh them and make a good decision. Also fucking delegating, how does it work? I suspect I would be a poor manager, and it would be more trouble than it would be worth to try to train me into one.

My boss is the same way, she’s a natural leader as brand evangelizer and fund-raiser, but if she were our squad leader in the field, we’d all be dead.


Sometimes better pay is the way they bribe people who aren’t interested in management to take the job anyway. I worked for a few large corporations that set up tracks for different IT jobs. They all gave people about 2 years at each level, and moved people up the ladder from working independently, to working in teams, to leading the teams. After 6-8 years, the only thing left was to be a manager. I had colleagues who resisted the pressure to move up, because they enjoyed the work without the management responsibility.

However, each firm used the carrot and stick approach. They paid managers more and gave incentives for internal candidates, but had few takers. We’d all seen the manager’s job up close, so nobody wanted it. If employees stayed at a level “too long,” they started getting bad annual reviews - no matter how good their actual performance had been. That hit them in the wallet, since raises or bonuses were tied to getting good reviews. When it was my turn, my manager seemed truly mystified about my reasons for avoiding that kind of promotion. I told her that my career choices were not based on money, but on skills and ability. I had no desire to learn to be the manager, so I left.


Sociopaths raised to their level of incompetence - yep, that sounds about right for the way the world seems to work these days.