Common Leadership Errors: Failing to Develop People

In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull authored the book, The Peter Principle.  To summarize their research findings and developed principle, their concept sounds like this: in many organizations, people are promoted because they are good and competent at their jobs.  However, with the promotion comes the requirement of new responsibilities and job tasks requiring a different skillset from the performer.  This person is expected to be automatically good at the new job, new tasks, new everything since they were competent with their previous job.  Promotions will continue until a person becomes completely incompetent and therefore not useful to the organization.  That is where promotions will end.  It’s been over 50 years since their book was published, and yet this is still happening in organizations.  This blog is dedicated to this common leadership error.

The failing to develop people error occurs when leaders (or organizations) do not have systems and processes in place to prepare people for upcoming promotions. They also do not provide ongoing coaching and support to build newly needed skills once someone is promoted into a new position.  Anytime someone is promoted to a new position, that promotion comes with new responsibilities and tasks requiring the development of new skills or behaviors.  The assumption that because someone is good at one thing, they will automatically be good at a whole host of other behaviors is far reaching.  No one would assume that someone who plays for the National Football League would be good at another sport, like ice hockey.  Then why do companies (and leaders) assume that someone who is technically skilled at a job would be good at leading others or capable in selling? Neither assumption makes much sense.  And then to make things worse, the person getting the promotion gets little to no help after they get the job:  thus, leading to the Peter Principle. 

Instead of failing to develop people, leaders and organizations should create systems and processes to create a pull strategy for promoting people into new positions.  This type of system has two components. The first pinpoints critical behaviors for each job position and proactively teaches and develops those behaviors before someone receives a promotion.  This often includes the person taking on some of those tasks/behaviors to help them further develop in real situations allowing for the ability to get feedback and positive reinforcement.  Once someone has these skills, they are ready for the promotion which triggers the next process.  The second component is structured follow-up after the promotion to help them navigate their new position, delegate old responsibilities, and develop through mentoring.  This includes observing the critical behaviors in real time to help guide and provide feedback as well as structured meetings to help them navigate their new position.  This allows for the quick development of critical behaviors, setting them up for success in the new position.       

The Peter Principle is alive and well in many organizations as many companies promote people who are good at their job into positions where they now have skill deficits.  Without deliberate development of skills both before and immediately after moving someone into a new position, people are left to sink or swim. This creates underperformers who end up resenting the organization.  The cost is exponentially more expensive than investing in a pull system that purposefully gives people the skills they need before a promotion and ensuring the have mentoring afterwards.  Behavioral tools and principles such as pinpointing, shaping and positive reinforcement can help develop those news skills as habits quickly, creating top performers purposefully. This will improve the work culture and drive organizational success.


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.