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Smart Worker, Terrible Boss

The boss thinks you’re an invaluable employee and wants to reward you with a promotion. But is it a step in the right direction or a push into a career pitfall?

You’re a shining example of a great employee, but it doesn’t mean you’ll make a stellar boss. Companies that fail to recognize this risk can fall into the trap of the Peter Principle, first formulated by authors Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in 1968. The principle describes the common practice of using promotions as a way to reward employees who demonstrate competence in their current roles.

“The Peter Principle suggests that, ultimately, organizations that hire only from within will eventually end up with incompetent people doing all of their jobs,” says Professor Richard Long of the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business. “Now, that’s an exaggeration, but to some extent it’s true.”

Promote for the right reasons

The road to a bad promotion is often paved with a company’s good intentions. “When people are smart and they’re dependable, you want to reward them,” says Serina Pu, a human resources consultant based in Vancouver.

But if the employee lacks the necessary skills to lead a team, it often results in disappointment for the individual and the organization. “The classic example is always in sales,” says Long. “Just because you were a great salesperson, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great sales manager.”

Ultimately, Long says when an employee flounders after a promotion, the fault lies with the company. The organization has failed to recognize that competence in one role does not translate into success in another.

Leadership isn’t for everyone

Good organizations provide potential management candidates with opportunities to demonstrate their abilities before they are promoted, says Pu. A supportive environment includes constructive feedback and leadership training as well as chances to head team projects.

But Professor Ron Burke of York University’s School of Human Resources Management says companies should remember that not everyone wants to take centre stage, and not everyone can be a leader. “Somebody who is basically doing their job very well and doesn’t want to be more than that, there’s a great place for that kind of person.”

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