Self

Why Taking a Promotion Can Become a Big Mistake

The Peter Principle and why the vines of incompetence grow with success.

Sean Kernan
5 min readOct 30, 2023

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Office manager at his computer looking on with disapproval.
Pexels via Sora Shimazaki

Management didn’t know what to do with Steven and it was their fault. Steven was a 28-year-old coworker and assistant project manager. We worked at a corporate construction company and project managers were our most important personnel.

Steven was smart and had stellar reviews, but when prompted about promoting to PM, he said, “No, no, I’m good.” It perplexed our CFO and COO, who didn’t know why a good employee wouldn’t want more money and responsibility.

I knew why. I was the budget manager at his division and sat in on many of their meetings. I saw the grueling pressure put on project managers and saw them yelled at on occasion. It wasn’t an easy job. Steven figured, he was young and enjoying his life and didn’t want that kind of pressure. And perhaps he thought he’d be bad at the job — which is wiser than most realize.

The Peter Principle was first proposed by psychologist Laurence J. Peters and was intended as satire. It proposed that competent employees will be continually promoted until they are incompetent in their new role. Then, they remain in that position for the remainder of their career. Consequently, every role is eventually held by an incompetent employee. His concept was unexpectedly hailed by researchers as having relevance and truth. Many firms now actively work to combat it.

I would wager any person reading this, who has been in corporate long enough, can think of at least one manager who was shockingly bad at their job. Yet they seemed untouchable.

It makes intuitive sense that as the demands and competition go up, your shine can easily lose its luster. For example, I was a good swimmer and the captain of my high school team. I felt like a god when I swam in local meets against kids who only swam a few months a year. But as I went up to districts, states, and then regionals, I felt increasingly less special.

Today, I’m a writer who sits on the other side of the corporate fence, living mostly free of hierarchal structures and constantly worrying about mistakes slipping through. I see my own partner, and friends, all…

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Sean Kernan

Former financial analyst turned writer. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.