Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote their book The Peter Principle 1969, but it is still as valid today.

This simply states that “every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. So, if someone is good at their job, they’ll be promoted into a role that demands different skillsets. Then if they’re good at the new job too, they will be promoted again. This requiring another set of skills. Finally, one day, they will reach a job for which they are wholly unsuited.

Some believe in the principle, others doubt it. However, how often do you see or hear about a high performing IT, sales or specialist being promoted to a team leader or managerial role. You then hear that this same person subsequently is struggling with the transition and the same performance is not present. Classic Peter Principle.

Maybe you have been on the receiving end of this yourselves, or seen it in colleagues?

Peter Principle Options

In this situation there are options:

  • Sack them – but their poor performance in the new role isn’t wholly their fault, their line managers have a hand in it too.
  • Wait for them to resign and move on. But there is a huge risk and cost associated with that
  • De-mote them back to what they are good at. Psychologically and perceptually how will that impact upon their performance and how they view themselves as future managers?
  • Train and coach them – possibly a win:win..?

The sad thing is the Peter Principle can be easily avoided and with little effort and time. How many of you have fully invested the time and energy in preparing people for new roles.

Coaching to avoid the Peter Principle

The steps to reducing the Peter Principle are very straight forward. They are also key tenents of your own leadership function. All should be underpinned by coaching.:

  • In recognising their high performance and skills currently, discussing what is needed for their new future state.
  • Understanding how they are feeling about ‘stepping up’ into a management role.
  • Identifying development needs before they are needed and attending to the priorities.
  • Exploring what they need from you as their line manager
  • Giving people your time and experience
  • Reinforcing belief in in them for their new roles
  • Creating a culture of approachability for them
  • Allocating responsibility before it is formalised
  • Coaching the person through their transition
  • Coaching them to establish themselves in their new roles
  • Enabling them to set the agenda in your conversations
  • Not trying to ‘jump the hurdles for them’ that they come across.
  • Make monthly one to ones as much about them as about their performance.

Coaching is key to avoid the Peter principle. Yes you can tell them what to do, but that only stays in their short term memory. Coaching not only provides the support on their terms, but also facilitates deeper learning and embedding.


There is the philosophy in life that by helping others you actually end up helping yourself too. This is true when reducing the likelihood of the Peter Principle.

A leader who coaches someone to and through a new role has an impact wider than on just one person. They begin to transform their own approach to leadership. They build trust with not just the new line manager but others too. There is role modelling of best practice to other line managers. The new manager will begin to impact upon team and individual performance quicker. The leader will be developing and transferring their own coaching skills. Their style will impact upon the culture of the wider team. Perceptions of others towards the line manager will change, as they see engaging behaviours happen.

Leadership self reflection

  • So having read this article, what do you recognise about yourself that you could do to reduce the Peter Principle in your area?
  • What have you not done in the past towards your new managers that you could have done differently?

Abintus help leaders and managers become more effective in their own performance and getting the best from others. We do this through tailored training and coach development. Click here to see when our next coach training courses are happening.

Nick Howell has worked with many leaders. His mission is simple, to help leaders learn and develop to be the best they can before themselves and their teams. He uses knowledge gained these experiences to inform and develop leaders, through his articles, coaching and training practice.