Beware Of The Peter Principle

Beware Of The Peter Principle

by Jim Olsztynski | March 22, 2024 | Blog Skilled Trades | 0 Comments

“The Peter Principle” is the title of a book published in 1972 that, in my opinion, is one of the most insightful business books ever. It refers to the fact that many people in the business world tend to be promoted beyond their level of competence.

We see it in most types of business, even in the plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical trades. The best salesperson almost inevitably gets promoted to sales manager. The most productive technician becomes a foreman or service manager. In football, an offensive or defensive coordinator who’s a genius designing plays with X’s and O’s, usually gets hired by some team as a head coach. In many cases, promotions are handed out by virtue of seniority. Whoever’s been doing a job the longest gets to be the boss, whether or not that person has what it takes to succeed in the bigger job.

Sometimes these things work out okay. More often, they don’t. The main reason is because in most jobs when someone gets promoted, he or she ends up in charge of managing other people. That requires a completely different set of skills than mastering the technical details of the job at hand. Just because you can build and fix things better than most other trade workers doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to motivate and direct other people to do the same. Promotions also tend to come with paperwork that consumes time and can be annoying to productive people.

The Peter Principle comes into play when working in the trades probably more than in most other fields. One reason is it’s pretty easy to identify the best performers, and because very few employers invest in management training. Their focus is on technical training to make sure installations perform the way they should. In the small companies that dominate the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical trades, often the owner has his hand in all facets of the business and is too busy to pay attention to workforce dynamics. When something goes wrong, it’s easier to blame the workers involved rather than their supervisor.

If you’re just starting as an apprentice or technician in the PHCE trades, there’s little you can do if you end up working under a boss who reflects The Peter Principle. All you can do is keep doing your work as well as it can be done.

Someday, though, you may do your job so well that you may be promoted and put in charge of managing others. If that day comes, ask yourself whether you really want to be responsible for the performance of others. If so, lobby for as much management training as possible.