Bad Boss BS: “I was great at my old job.”

A group of four 2d characters stand close but slightly apart from a 3d bad boss character.

Let’s face it, there are lots of bad bosses out there. The Peter Principle attempts to explain why this might be. Developed by Laurence J Peter and described in his 1968 book, the theory is that in a hierarchy, people tend to be promoted to a point of incompetence.

This might sound cynical. But there’s a logic behind it. If you’re successful you have the chance of advancement. If you’re incompetent, you’re less likely to progress but you might remain in your current role, being incompetent. Peter therefore concludes that in a hierarchy where past performance in a role is used as evidence for suitability in another role, most people will be promoted to a point of incompetence. They perform well, apply for advancement and their current performance is used as evidence for their suitability for the new role. But at some point, this evidence becomes a bad predictor of future success. This usually happens when the roles differ in significant ways — like becoming a manager or leader for the first time.

The Peter principle states that people will be promoted up to a point of incompetence. Then, as soon as they become incompetent they’ll stop being promoted. But they can sit in that role for a long time, slowly wearing down the energy and performance of those around them. Lots of bad bosses start out this way.

“If organisations promote the best people in their current job, you almost inevitably promote people until they’re no longer good at their jobs.”

There are lots of reasons behind the Peter Principle phenomenon. Good performers look like the best candidates for promotion — often even if the jobs aren’t really comparable. Sometimes promotions are offered in lieu of pay increases. Badly designed recruitment processes might collect evidence of high performance in areas not relevant to a new role. Or internal promotions might be badly connected to performance reviews, missing out on valuable insights into areas of strength and development needs. And where performance management is weak generally, the now-incompetent team member will continue being bad.

Peter predicted a persistent professional pickle

The Peter Principle is the result of poor organisational design and operation. It’s most likely to happen when development isn’t written into the culture or fabric of the organisation. It is also seen when career pathways aren’t supported or well described, so people miss a fundamental shift in the requirements of roles that provide routes to progression.

In my world, this can happen with the move from designer to design leader. Being an excellent designer might not be adequate evidence that you’re well-suited to a management or leadership role — and being excellent in that role probably isn’t enough to prepare you for the transition. But organisations might reward excellent practice with promotion and then expect excellence in a whole set of new competencies. Better-designed career pathways and support can avoid this trap. So there are things organisations can do.

The Peter Principle describes a vicious cycle where people will always progress to the point of incompetence. Without development they’ll stop progressing and stay incompetent. But rather than stop at the semi-cynical insight that we should expect most bosses to be bad, is there anything in the principle that can help us?

New Bad Bosses

The Peter Principle describes a phenomenon we should all expect — a period of “lower” performance following a promotion or job move. Most people who are new into a role will need time to develop their competence (and often their confidence) in a new role. The recruitment process probably collected some clues that they might be able to do the job. But when the reality hits, there is always still work to do to meet the required standard.

So start by expecting a new boss to have some development areas. It’s natural that there will be development needs when someone moves into a more challenging role. Don’t add to those challenges by having unrealistic expectations. Be generous.

Offer good quality feedback. Good feedback is radically candid. It’s factual, constructive and shows you care. New bosses might have anxieties around performance. They might feel pressured to establish their authority. Spend some time considering how the boss might be feeling and approach them with this in mind.

Blind bad boss

But there’s a point when the incompetence is no longer the result of moving into a new role — it just becomes the norm. Normalising incompetence in a boss is not good for you, them or the organisation. Some bad bosses might be happy to sit in a role that they’re no good at — but I haven’t met many of these. It’s much more likely that a long-term incompetent manager is bad because of a blindspot. They don’t know they’re incompetent or don’t know how they can improve.

The good news is that we can almost always help identify a blindspot, and can quite often coach and support them to address an area of poor performance that we’ve noticed — because if we’ve spotted an area where they’re not meeting our expectations, we’ve usually got a pretty well defined picture of what we expected. Sharing this expectation openly will help them to picture what they might change.

The JoHari window is a four box grid that describes the status of information that we know about ourselves and others know about us. The four regions are ‘Open area’ where we and others know a thing about us, ‘Blind Spot where others know something we don’t, ‘Private’ area where we haven’t shared something with anyone else and ‘Unknown’ where nobody, not even ourselves know something. We can expand the ‘Open area’ through honest conversation, reducing blind spots.
This is a version of the JoHari window. It describes that there are things that we’re aware of about ourselves and things that other people are aware of. This gives us four types of things. It’s reasonable to expect that there might be some things that other people know about us or our performance that we haven’t spotted ourselves. The JoHari window gives us a language to talk about those things. We can expand the ‘open’ area and have productive conversations about our performance and development which can expose blind spots.

The JoHari window is one method for framing a conversation about blindspots. Talking to a manager about this model might provide a way to address areas where they could be offering more or performing differently.

Similarly, talking about the evolution of skills and competence might be another way into a conversation. Noel Burch describes how people, when they’re introduced to a new skill will almost always be incompetent. Without conscious effort we remain incompetent. Through practice we get better. Then people can then fall into a trap of ‘unconscious incompetence’ where they’ve stopped paying attention to how they do something and fallen into bad habits. This is sometimes the cause for bad boss-ing and pointing out this danger might be a route to improving the situation.

This image shows the “boss” character locked in a cycle of ‘unconscious incompetence’ to practicing and perfecting and highlights that when we start to “unconsciously perform” we can develop bad habits and fall back into being incompetent.
A version of the cycle Noel Burch used to describe how we acquire competence and how sometimes we fall into the trap of unconscious incompetence when we stop paying conscious attention to how we “perform”.

Most people don’t want to be incompetent. But the way organisations and careers are sometimes structured makes it almost inevitable. The Peter Principle and models like the JoHari window give us a vocabulary to talk about blind spots and competence. Or at the very least, they give us reassurance that there are probably predictable reasons why you’ve encountered the odd bad boss in your career.

Please Participate

If you’ve had an experience of a bad boss, have a story to share or want advice you can participate in this series by sending a message to @danramsden or completing this contributor form or commenting here and on the posts. I’m hoping to build a community around the experience of bad bosses — and share advice and practical adaptations so that we remain effective. There’ll be at least one post every week. If you have something to share, please get in touch.

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