What Causes Promotions to Fail?

It is unfortunately common for employees in organizations to climb up the ladder to their “level of incompetence,” a concept in management known as the Peter Principle. They get the promotion not on the basis of their potential to fulfill the needs of the new role into which they were placed, but because they did well in their previous job. This happens even when an entirely different skill-set is needed for the new role. Not only that, but oftentimes, they do not get trained for the new skills they need to learn to become successful in their new role.

The combination of poor promotion practices and lack of training is mostly due to a dangerous judgement error known as the curse of knowledge. This refers to the fact that, after learning something, we have significant difficulty in relating to people who don’t know it.

How our brains are wired

Put another way, as soon as we gain a set of skills—for example, managing others—we have the tendency to forget what it feels like not to have these skills. In addition, once we get relevant knowledge—for instance, the jargon we use in our profession—we have the tendency to use it when speaking to people who don’t understand this jargon, even wondering why they fail to understand it.

Due to this, we encounter difficulty when communicating with others about our professional activities, trying to teach them skills they need for their work life, or even just collaborating with them in a professional environment.

The curse of knowledge error stems from how our brains are wired. It is one of many dangerous judgement errors that scholars in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience call cognitive biases, and we make these mistakes not just in the workplace but also in other decision-making scenarios—even when shopping, for instance.

Recent research has shown that we can avoid making these mistakes in judgment by using pragmatic strategies. You can apply these, not just in your professional life, but also all other life areas. For example, when shopping, you can use the strategy of narrowing down your choices to an editor-selected top ten, as enabled by Top10.com, to make the best decisions.

What about the curse of knowledge?

Here is one case from my experience: a rapidly growing manufacturing company encountered a serious Peter Principle and curse of knowledge hurdle. Staff were moving up and getting promoted to supervisory roles based on a combination of previous performance and seniority. These newly-promoted supervisors were then prodded to pick up the necessary skills on the job, even without any leadership training. This challenging situation came from the curse of knowledge, with the majority of leaders in the transportation department having forgotten the challenges they also faced when they had to develop their own leadership skills.

Fortunately, a newly-hired HR Director came in with some outside perspective, identified the long-standing practice as a grave issue, and convinced senior management to develop a leadership program to train the new supervisors. This HR Director then brought in Disaster Avoidance Experts to consult on creating the program.

We started with an opt-in pilot training program for the newly promoted supervisors. After conducting focus group discussions and assessments of current supervisors, we were able to identify eight core skills needed for the supervisory role compared to their former roles, along with some relevant knowledge. Following this initial phase, Disaster Avoidance Experts proceeded with these steps:

  • Crafting a training curriculum conveying these skills and knowledge.
  • Creating a mentor program teaming a new supervisor with one who had more than five years of experience.
  • Creating a method of evaluating success, specifically checking if the new supervisors received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations” on their six-month performance evaluation.

From that point on, things unfolded as follows.

  • 21 out of the 48 newly-promoted supervisors chose to join the pilot training program.
  • Out of these, 17 new supervisors—or 83 percent—hit that target rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations.” This result was much higher than the previous baseline of 63 percent. Of the 27 supervisors who chose not to join the program, only 59 percent—or 16 supervisors—received the same rating, which was right around the baseline.
  • After witnessing how the new training curriculum significantly improved the new supervisors’ performance, the manufacturing company’s leadership supported the HR Director’s push to train all newly-promoted supervisors.

Of course, there was still the matter of the Peter Principle being used to determine how their supervisors were selected, and I find it regrettable that this was not addressed in the leadership development program. Unfortunately, the leadership did not want to tackle the issue, as it would mean challenging the union contract’s promotion guidelines.

Still, the good thing is that the new supervisors had an improved change of succeeding in their roles after the curse of knowledge was addressed.

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