The Better Principle & Front Line Supervisors

In 1969, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull co-authored a humorous book entitled “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” One of the principles of management theory that is discussed in the book is what has become known as the Peter Principle. Simply stated this principle is that “the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in his or her current role rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, “managers rise to the level of their incompetence. While this management principle has application on organizational structures and is studied by social scientists, it can also have a significant impact in the workplace when line employees are promoted to front-line supervisory positions.

Typically, new employees begin their employment in entry-level positions. These positions generally come with lower pay, little to no authority, and routine or physically demanding job duties that require little to no management skills to be successful. However, with the passage of time, most employees’ job skills improve and they may become very good at whatever their job involves. For example, an employee at a grocery store may start off bagging groceries, be promoted to a stock clerk, and then become a cashier. Or, a road maintenance worker may begin as a Road Maintenance Worker I, become a II and then an Equipment Operator.

In some workplaces, the promotions may require that the employee take a test to measure technical job knowledge and/or skill at performing the duties of the position applied for. For example, a Road Worker II may be tested on his ability to operate heavy equipment in order to qualify to become an Equipment Operator.

Employees who come up through the ranks eventually get to the point where the next position on the promotion ladder is a managerial or supervisory position. Such positions require the employee to supervise other employees who will be doing the work that the candidate for promotion has done for years. Although applications are screened and the top candidates[1] are interviewed, the person ultimately selected typically has no managerial or supervisory experience, usually is not provided with training on how to be a supervisor, and may lack the interpersonal skills to succeed as a supervisor. Thus, while they may know, for example, how to operate a road grader, they do not know how to effectively manage a diverse group of individuals with various personalities, skills and motivation levels.

While some individuals develop on their own into excellent supervisors, in many cases the newly-promoted supervisor’s lack of supervisory ability becomes an obstacle to the business functioning at its highest level. This is not the result of the new position being too difficult for the newly-promoted supervisor, but rather is a reflection of the fact that the supervisory position requires a new set of job skills which the new supervisor simply does not possess. This reality is reflected in the fact that the majority of problems in the workplace that result in workplace investigations due to discrimination, harassment and/or hostile work environment typically involve low-level supervisors and/or the employees they supervise. These supervisors are not necessarily “bad” people with nefarious motives; instead, they simply lack the skills necessary to properly perform their job and it results in problems and complaints.

Such complaints may be based upon the actual or perceived favoritism a supervisor shows to employees with whom the supervisor has a personal relationship. For example, if an employee who has a close relationship with the supervisor is given the opportunity to work a lot of overtime and others who are equally qualified are denied that same opportunity, the employees who are not offered overtime may complain that they are being discriminated against or that the supervisor is showing preferential treatment.

An investigation may result in findings that the alleged behavior did occur (e.g., favoring one employee over another for overtime) but that it was not based on anyone’s protected-class status; however, there is always collateral damage. Collateral damage may be reflected by poor morale in the workplace, rumors, gossip, wasted time and lower productivity. In addition, members of upper management are required to devote their time and energy to addressing the issue.

All of this collateral damage costs the employer money in lost time, lower productivity, management’s time addressing the problem, the cost of hiring an outside workplace investigator and/or the cost of placing employees on paid administrative leave during an investigation. Such costs may continue even after the issue is “resolved” if morale and productivity remain low, employees continue to gossip and the supervisor continues to function at the same low level as before.

As in many cases, the best way to resolve the problems created by low-level supervisors is to take steps to increase the probability that newly-hired supervisors have or will be taught the skills necessary to become successful at their new “supervisory” position as opposed to past success in their prior positions. Formal training, mentoring, and coaching of new supervisors can be helpful. Likewise, identifying the supervisory qualities, skills and abilities that are needed for the new position and adjusting selection criteria to place importance on these skills[2] when screening; interviewing and selecting individuals will ensure that those promoted have the full set of skills needed to be successful in their supervisory role.

Hiring and/or promoting individuals to be supervisors and managers who have the skill, ability and personality to be successful supervisors can result in improved morale in the workplace, reduced employee complaints, and fewer workplace investigations. In those cases where the candidates for promotion lack supervisory skills and abilities, management may select those who have the desire and ability to learn and then provide the training and experience they need to develop the skills that will allow them to be a successful supervisor. While this will take time and resources, in the end it can have a positive impact in the workplace.

If supervisors have, or will develop, the skills they need to become competent supervisors, they can be successful, are less likely to fall prey to the Peter Principle and the workplace problems that inevitably occur when an employee rises to the level of their incompetence.

by Dan Rowley

[1] In many cases, the selection of top candidates is based in large part on how well they performed their then current job.

[2] I am not suggesting that actual job skill/knowledge/experience in the positions the new supervisor will supervise is unimportant. However, if a person is being hired to be a supervisor of a road crew, it must be remembered that he is being hired to be a “supervisor.” Being a good supervisor, like being a heavy-equipment operator, requires skill, knowledge, training and the ability to supervise.