Are you going beyond capability? - Michelle Gibbings

Are you going beyond capability?

At some stage in your career, you will likely have looked at someone in the hierarchy above you and wondered how they got there.

There’s a saying that everyone rises to their own level of incompetence. It’s a concept initially developed by Canadian educator and author Laurence J Peter and published in the book, The Peter Principle, which he co-authored with the Canadian playwright and lecturer Raymond Hull.

In the book, they write, “As individuals we tend to climb to our levels of incompetence. We behave as though up is better and more is better, and yet all around us we see the tragic victims of this mindless escalation.” They outlined the hazards of climbing up the corporate ladder, including ulcers, alcoholism, allergies and ‘Tabulatory Gigantism’ (an obsession with having a bigger desk than your colleagues) as this article in the New York Times reminds us.

Whether the book was part satire is open to debate, and Dr Peter did say at one point that he was kidding.

I’m not so cynical as to believe that we all rise to the level of our own incompetence; however, like you, I’ve seen situations where people are promoted into roles for which they are unsuited. So too, have researchers.

In a study reported in the US National Bureau of Economic Research, which examined 214 organisations and 1500 employees in sales roles, the researchers found many cases of this occurring. The data found that the better sales representative a person was, the more likely they were to be promoted into management. However, their promotion then negatively affected the salesperson’s new team members.

The research revealed that the managers who had high sales performance records before their promotion saw a 7.5 per cent decline in the sales performance of their new subordinates. In contrast, the managers whose prior sales performance was relatively poor, saw a significant improvement in their new subordinates’ performance.

Just because a person is good at the output and delivering results doesn’t mean they will automatically be a good leader.

One of the problems is that when we are hiring, we usually look at a person’s performance in their current role rather than the skills they need in the future role. There can also be many other factors that impact whether someone thrives in their new position. For example, personal circumstances, the level of support and coaching they receive, and shifting internal stakeholders …to name a few.

Who’s accountable?
So who’s accountable for making the situation work? I was having this debate with a colleague the other day.

It’s easy to say it’s purely the responsibility of the person who accepted the person. The logic is that they should only take a role for which they can fulfil the requirements. But there’s more to it than that. Circumstances can change, and so too expectations.

The hiring manager also plays a role. They hired the person, so what are they doing to help that person succeed?

Everyone plays a role. The person who sought and got the promotion, and the person who did the hiring.

Seeking promotion – challenge yourself
If you’re seeking to move up the corporate ladder, you need to ask yourself some questions before you apply for the promotion.

Firstly, why are you seeking a promotion? Is it for the status, learning and challenge, the financial reward or something else? Be clear on your why and the alignment between this role and your purpose.

Do you have the capacity and capability to fulfil the role’s expectations? While you only need some of the skills from the outset, you want the ability, capacity and willingness to learn.

Next, consider the support you need around you to be successful in the new role. This includes looking at the resources you may need, the time you want to devote to learning, and the headspace you need when you start a new role.

As I write about in my book, Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate your career, various studies report that 35% to 40% of senior hires fail within their first 18 months. So you need to be ready to do the work.

One of the critical elements is making your relationship with your new boss work. As Professor Michael Watkins outlines in his brilliant book, The First 90 Days to make the relationship work you need to:

  • Take 100 per cent responsibility for making the relationship work
  • Clarify mutual expectations early and often
  • Negotiate timelines for the work you are doing
  • Aim for early wins in areas critical to your boss
  • Pursue good feedback from those whose opinions your boss respects.

These are only a few of the elements to consider before you seek the role and then once you are in the role.

Seeking to promote – be supportive
If you’re the hiring manager, you also need to challenge yourself and ask questions. For example: Are you hiring the best-suited person, settling because you can’t find someone for the role or being overly influenced by other people’s opinions?

I’ve seen situations where people have been promoted into positions to fill a vacancy because no one else is available. From the outset, there are reservations about the person’s capability, yet appropriate support is not provided to help the person succeed. Same too, when people have been hired because they have been recommended by someone more senior.

As the hiring manager, be clear on what you are looking for in the role and the level of support you are ready to provide.

Then, if someone steps into the role and it isn’t working, you need to rechallenge yourself. There may also be other mitigating forces at play. The leadership problems may result from ingrained behavioural patterns or a temporary blip caused by external pressures and an inability to cope.


  • Are there events occurring in their personal life that are causing stress and distraction?
  • Is there an unusually high volume of work and tight deadlines?
  • Is there a resource shortfall which is creating pressure?
  • Do they appear overworked, exhausted and stressed out?
  • Are there organisational changes underway which are creating uncertainty?
  • Are there other workplace changes that could be impacting their behaviour?

This isn’t about making excuses for their behaviour. It is, however, about being fair and kind and recognising that everyone is human and that sometimes people aren’t their best when external pressures overwhelm them.

Lastly, consider if you are spending enough time providing clarity on expectations and coaching support. Perhaps you need to do more to help the person land well in the role.

To make a workplace work well, everyone needs to play their part and play it well.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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