Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

"The Peter Principle" and Other Reasons To Think Twice Before Accepting a New Promotion

It’s the offer you thought you’d been waiting for. You’ve put in long hours, juggled various client projects and now the firm has offered to reward your efforts with a promotion. You’re about to become the newest manager or creative director.  You’ll have higher pay, a bigger office, and more responsibility. Your life in the new role looks sweet. But maybe you should look again.

In many organizations, large and small, promotions often don’t turn out to be the reward they were intended to be. Newly promoted team members often find themselves over-extended and their performance suffers. Moreover, when the new workload calls for managing projects instead of contributing to them, the newly promoted spend less and less time working on tasks that drew them to the firm in the first place. This dilemma is actually quite common in companies and it isn’t an exactly a positive scenario for either party.

The phenomenon of under-performing, un-engaged managers was first described by the Canadian psychologist Dr. Laurence Peter in a theory that now bears his name: The Peter Principle. Simply stated, the Peter Principle predicts that “in a hierarchical organization, employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Dr. Peter observed that in most companies, team members are rewarded for their high performance with a promotion, but if they under-perform in the new role, they are rarely demoted. Instead, companies try more training, smaller teams, or hiring assistant managers to help—all of these in order to avoid facing the painful admission that the promotion wasn’t really the best decision. Peter first proposed this theory in the 1960s mostly as satire, but more recently researchers have begun to test it scientifically.  In a statistical model of organizations that tested the traditional promotion strategy (Peter Principle) against randomly handed out promotions, researchers found not only that the Peter Principle dilemma occurred. It was practically inevitable.

The team found that any time that the competencies required in one level of an organization were not the same as the competencies required to perform well at the level below, the newly promoted would find themselves facing the possibility of their incompetence. In the creative industries, this distinction can be quite important. Moving “up” in many firms can mean less time serving clients or less time creating new projects and more time managing budgets or holding people accountable.

Team members are rewarded for their high performance with a promotion, but if they under-perform in the new role, they are rarely demoted.

If the newly offered promotion involves much of the same skill set with a minimal addition of new skills, then it’s likely a good fit. If however, the new position would draw you away from your core strengths, then perhaps you should reconsider. Either way, it’s important to examine whether any new competencies are ones you feel capable of acquiring. If you feel like you’d be a quick learner, then it might be worth rolling the dice. If not, then perhaps you should pass and wait for a more fitting assignment to come along.

The Peter Principle is more than just a satirical comment on large bureaucracies or a strange organizational phenomenon. It’s a symptom of a culture that over-values titles and under-values being connected to the work you’re best at. That culture drives us away from the roles in which we’d thrive all for the promise of a better-looking business card. We’re subtly influenced to believe that more responsibility, bigger offices, and better sounding titles are always better. The truth is: working on projects you have the potential to thrive at is better than any title.


More insights on: Career Development, Hiring

David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
load comments (16)
  • Caleb Slain

    Great article. DFW discussed this in his essay “Television and U.S. Fiction”.

    • davidburkus

      Haven’t read it. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  • Mark Christensen

    Most people don’t realize – you can use the Peter Principle to YOUR ADVANTAGE!

    I worked with a guy who’d quit a good job as a mechanical engineer with 3M to work at a motorcycle repair shop (his TRUE passion). He quickly rose up the ladder and became parts department manager. He hated it, “I no longer got to burn my elbow on hot mufflers”. He wanted to repair bikes, not manage parts. So, he quit. They ended up giving him his old job back but alas, he ended up as the part time parts manager. He finally quit the place altogether.

    The only reason he worked at the place I met him at was because we had a machine shop. Most mechanical engineers draw up their plans and give them to the machine shop to whittle out the part. No this guy – he’d wait for the machine shop guys to go home at 3:00 PM and then head out to the shop. He’s whittle out the parts the way he wanted them and them bring it back to his desk, measure it, and draw up the specs. He’s one of the best mechanical engineers I’ve ever worked with.

    (Sorry for taking the long way around to the point.) This guy introduced me to the “Peter Principle.” He was using it proactively to avoid climbing up the ladder to where he’d be
    unhappy (and doing something he didn’t like). He intentionally dressed kind of strange (ties that didn’t match, etc) – although I don’t think it much of a stretch for him. He also had a great tip. Leave a desk drawer open at the end of the day when you go home. NOBODY does that – it makes management think you’re a little “off.”

    He was good at what he did, but was certain to make sure that our boss didn’t see potential for any kind of management position.

    So, not only is the Peter Principle great at explaining why the organizations we’re in are the way they are, we can use it to our advantage!

    • davidburkus

      Great example Mark. The Peter Principle isn’t a life sentence, it’s a warning to pursue positions you’re good at and engaged in…not just ones that move you “up.”

  • davidburkus

    Great point. The Peter Principle isn’t just for your career advice…it’s good management advice as well. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Agreed. I’ve only once worked with an organizational that allowed technical people to get the same perks as management folk. Needless to say, it was a very innovative company.

  • davidburkus

    Don, I totally agree that we need the structure overhauled. But in the meantime, the advice is worth hearing from a personal level – especially considering that, after a certain income level, additional money doesn’t buy happiness so moving “up” and getting more pay will probably not be worth it.

  • davidburkus

    Christina. I can’t give you a raise, but here’s a virtual high five. Keep up the good work. I love your distinction between “up” and “different.”

  • Erick Calderon

    It is indeed a big dilemma to accept a promotion or not. The truth is, when you get enough experience in a junior position, you become a very competent and well known professional; therefore, the position becomes too small for you. When you get promoted, you become a rookie again and most of the times you have to learn everything again. A management or senior position requires a different way to see and analize things. It could be very tough, frustrating and you can even feel that you don´t deserve the new position. I agree with the article, you should think about it twice before making that decision… Unless you are ready!!!!

    • davidburkus

      Erick. Agreed. The trick is knowing which positions you are truly ready and able to learn in. Thanks!

  • Jeffrey Thomas

    I have seen this REPEATEDLY at my current place of employment. They repeatedly promote “high potential” individuals, who end up miserable, underperforming, and eventually unemployed. Then they go work for the competition.

  • Jamie Godin


  • belicosa

    Nice article take a look on

  • Katja Bak

    First: actually get offered a promotion.

  • mrmomar

    Wow. Fantastic concept that, until now, I only understood intuitively and learned through personal observation. Thank you for writing this article.

    I’d like to share my own experience where I’ve watched a colleague get promoted, while I stayed put. I feel like in the last few months I’ve really started to realize my own potential. My work is faster, better and more creative. The term honing my craft comes to mind. It’s made me realize that if a person rise too quickly, you may miss out on the discipline of mastering your craft.

  • Dubious Beagle

    Interesting article but we are so glued to and guided by titles that even the author lists his credentials.

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