Stephanie Denning for Bergen Review
Every additional year I spend in the workforce, I realize promotions become increasingly mystifying. The guy you never thought would advance suddenly gets a raise. Your colleague who definitely didn’t deserve it gets promoted. Your peer, who is no smarter nor harder working, gets promoted more quickly. But you also get promoted faster than you expected maybe as many times as you’re disappointed. You are recognized for work you thought everyone was doing. And you get a raise when you least expect it.
After 10 years of watching these promotion cycles, I’ve decided they only get more and more complex.
Promotions at work, by and large, still mimic “promotions” at school. At school, you do well in an intro-level class, and you then advance to the next. That process, however ill-suited, is the same one in place for promotions at work. Do well in your existing job and you will excel. But the skill set to excel in your current job doesn’t necessarily match the skill set required for the job you’re stepping into.
You don’t have to look far to find examples. It’s common to see great software developers who get promoted and then poorly manage, great writers who get promoted to editors and then poorly edit, business analysts who get promoted and then poorly manage or sell the work. In short, the promotion problem is everywhere. So common, in fact, that there’s an entire management theory around it:
The Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle is defined as the phenomenon in most organizations where employees continue to get promoted until they hit a skill set-ceiling and eventually fail. In the book that bears the same name, The Peter Principle, by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull, the authors describe it more succinctly. "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Visually, it looks a little like this.
At the start of your career or a new job, you might get promoted, but eventually, you get to a point where you no longer possess the skills needed for the job. This is where you fail. The Peter Principle posits that this is almost a universal concept, that everyone at some point will experience this. And I believe that to be true.
But if this is truly a universal problem, it would be fair to ask: Are we all fated to fall into the Peter Principle, or is there a way out?
I’ve been informally studying the trajectory of career success for the last 10 years, and to answer this question, I’ll leave you with three frameworks to consider.
Focus On Productivity (Not Income) Growth
When many people enter the workforce, they are concerned (understandably) with how much money they make. But it’s the amount of money you make relative to the value you generate as an employee that matters. In equilibrium, you’re paid what you think you are worth. If you ever let your income rise faster than productivity, the Peter Principle traps you. In "How The Economic Machine Works," investor Ray Dalio offers a similar conclusion: "Don’t have income rise faster than productivity because you’ll eventually become uncompetitive."
If your income rises faster than your productivity, you price yourself out of the market. At first, you’ll likely experience a career burst as you start making more money than your peers, but that will quickly turn into a career bust if you fail to adjust your productivity growth. Your wage will recalibrate back down to match your productivity until you reach a point of equilibrium.
Do all that you can to raise productivity because in the long run, that’s what matters most," says Dalio.
Don’t Conflate Job Title With Skill Set
As people advance in a corporation and get subsumed by the politics of that particular organization, it is easy to lose sight of the skill set you’re developing, and perhaps more importantly, to lose sight of how that skill set is valued in the marketplace. Too many people conflate job title and pay for skill set. If you aren’t proactively developing a unique set of skills, you could easily again fall trap to the Peter Principle.
Let’s say you make a pretty good salary. If your skill set isn’t difficult or costly to acquire, new entrants in the market will quickly acquire that skill set and offer to do the same job for marginally less pay. Firms will then substitute cheaper and equally effective labor. That triggers the substitution effect.
If your skill set isn’t scarce, you face either taking a salary hit or getting pushed out. Develop a skill set in high demand, but short supply.
Apply Neil Gaiman’s “Secret Framework”
As most people in the workforce eventually learn, promotions are not based on your work alone. In writer Neil Gaiman’s keynote address at University of the Arts, he gifted the audience his secret framework for getting freelance work. But the real secret, I believe, is that this framework applies to all jobs. "I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good. And it is useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too. And it's this: "People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. . . . People keep working because their work is good, because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. "And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you."
To summarize Gaiman’s framework, here is a visual for you.
Developing unique skills is only one part of the puzzle. Find the two overlapping areas in which you most excel and mine it. If you happen to rate yourself as above average in all three, you’re probably overestimating your capabilities. However, if you happen to find yourself in a job where you feel way out of your depth, but you're willing to put in the effort learn, you can always hold on tight to these other two areas while you slowly learn the skills required to say sayonara to the Peter Principle.
Content gathered & updated by the Bergen Review Media team.