Are You Developing Successful People?

We have all heard of the Peter Principle—“Observation that in an organizational hierarchy people tend to rise to "their level of incompetence." Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less effective because good performance in one job does not guarantee similar performance in another.” When an employee reaches a level of incompetence, what are organizations to do with that incompetent employee? Typically, organizations take one of three approaches: 1) Hope the person magically develops the necessary skills to do the job, 2) put up with it and look the other way, or 3) repeatedly (or at least annually) tell the employee that they are not meeting expectations (which eventually leads to termination).  None of these responses are good for the organization or for the employee. 

Why does this happen? In most organizations, promotions are given to their best-producing employees; whether that is someone on the manufacturing line being promoted to supervisor or a top seller who becomes a sales manager.  It’s not a selection issue that many organizations have.  The problem stems from the expectation that just because someone is a good operator or seller, he or she will automatically become good at managing others.  The key components that are missing within most organizations’ promotion processes is the consideration of behavior and a lack of systematically pinpointing the key behaviors that will make the person successful at the next level.  This lack of key behavior development leads performers to oftentimes fail or rely on subpar people management approaches to do their job.  Hence the Peter Principle in practice.

For example, say your best technician was just promoted to supervisor.  He was promoted for his ability to operate his machine successfully and meet production goals.  Now as a supervisor he is no longer able to operate the machine but must lead people to operate the machines, help troubleshoot, lead a morning pre-shift meeting, deal with HR and other management issues, and complete hours of paperwork—all while being held accountable for group production goals.  Simply put, this new job requires different behaviors than those of being an operator. 

What can organizations do to correct this? Organizations should develop a list of clearly pinpointed critical behaviors required for each job position and develop a training and coaching program to develop them purposefully.  This is more than a vague job description: it is a clear description of the specific behaviors needed for success in the new position.  Once an organization has lists for each position, the organization can plan to build needed skill sets either before or immediately after a person takes on the new position.  This purposeful development of behaviors will help the employee achieve success faster, which has lasting benefits for the organization. Here are four behaviors that an organization should develop, purposefully, for anyone in a leadership position:

Pinpointing and Feedback—Pinpointing skills help a person to both give clearer instructions and to provide better feedback.  Provide meaningful positive and constructive feedback and pay close attention to when one or the other is most appropriate.

Open Ended Questions—Asking questions can be a useful tool in creating dialog, diagnosing and developing solutions for direct reports, and even in delivering positive reinforcement.  But be careful. Not all questions are good questions! “Why did you do that?” typically is not well received.

Time Management Techniques—Knowing how to plan the day, when to delegate, and when to say “no” are important skills for a leader to develop.  Implementing behaviors like blocking out time and working on one task at a time are effective and lead to better daily productivity.        

Relationship Development—Relationships help make a leader influential with direct reports.  More importantly, having a good relationships gives context and meaning when delivering feedback.  It is also the basis for positive reinforcement and for creating Discretionary Effort™.

Defining specific, pinpointed behaviors at each level and providing training and coaching on those behaviors allows organizations to develop managers in a way that leads to success.  The Peter Principle does not need to prevail in your organization.  By pinpointing and purposefully developing employee skills, organizations can move past incompetence and towards a high-performing workplace that thrives.   

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.