The Peter Principle of Training

The Peter Principle describes a competent employee who continued to be promoted until he reached a job he did not have the skills to perform, where he was stuck and ultimately failed.

By Paul Glover

Poor Peter. He was so misunderstood. His character and plight, known as the Peter Principle, describes a competent employee who continued to be promoted until he reached a job he did not have the skills to perform, where he was stuck and ultimately failed.

That concept was introduced more than 40 years ago, but even today, you may hear comments about employees being “Peter Principled,” and usually those comments are accompanied by a snide chuckle

Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be an employee like Peter? There he was, basking in the glow of being a top employee, maintaining high productivity, and contributing to his job and company. To recognize his good work, he gets promoted to supervisor. And suddenly, inexplicably, he begins a downward spiral.

What may have happened to Peter, as happens to countless other good employees, is that he was promoted to a job he did not have the skills to perform and was never taught the skills needed to succeed in the new position.

Stuck and Struggling

Chances are, when a formerly stellar employee struggles to handle new responsibilities, he won’t ask for help because to admit trouble implies that perhaps he should not have been promoted in the first place. So he tries to hold on, even though the struggle is obvious to everyone in the department. This tension affects productivity, creativity, and teamwork.

Eventually, within one year, 25 percent of these new supervisors return to their non-supervisory positions, tails tucked between their legs and convinced they don’t have what it takes to lead.

Other supervisors may remain in their jobs. But without the training they need to be truly effective and motivating supervisors, they develop a command-and-control style of management unsuitable for today’s knowledge economy. These employees become stuck in their positions to the detriment of the organization.

When an employee is promoted to supervisor, the employee must learn how to manage others—ideally before the promotion. We call these skills “soft skills” because these are the skills that get things done. Leadership. Negotiating. Teambuilding. Communicating. Conflict management. We race to ensure a new superviso

supervisor knows the processes and procedures and simply assume he easily will pick up soft skills on his own. But too often, it just doesn’t happen, as these skills are not intuitive. They have to be taught, their value explained, and their process modeled.

Blocking Progress

Generations ago, having a Peter in your organization meant that a career path was blocked. Peter performed just well enough not to get fired, but no one could be promoted around him, and no one wanted to work in his department.

In today’s work environment, where we also are trying to do the best work with the most efficient workforce, we can’t have a Peter clogging the artery of a department while we wait for him to retire. We can’t afford to outwait his inept influence on an entire department.

Take a look around your department. Do you have a Peter employee? If so, could the right training and mentoring help develop the needed skills? Do you have a training program established for potential supervisors? If not, can you afford to lose other bright employees because you have neglected to give supervisors the tools they really need to succeed?

Paul Glover, a “recovering employment attorney,” is a business and executive coach with a national clientele. He is also the author of WorkQuake, 76 ways to thrive in the Knowledge Economy, and a blogger for His writing is featured in The Business Edge, Vistage,, and Food Manufacturing. Glover can be contacted at 630.913.6555 and Sign up for “Paul’s Point of the Day” or submit a question to “Ask Paul” at

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.