Overpromotion – does everyone have a ceiling of competence?

I’ve recently been involved in two separate conversations where someone used the phrase “they’ve been overpromoted”. In both cases I had to stop and ask the observer what they meant by this. And both answers reflected an opinion that a promotion was given before the individual was considered able or competent.

But surely everyone has the ability to grow into a new role. Don’t they?

It’s natural to see how the first few months in a newly promoted job can be a struggle.  If it was easy then everyone would be jumping roles every five minutes and we’d never actually get any business done. In my own career to date I’ve always found promotion a challenge. Firstly, you’re usually superseding someone that was competent in the role you’ve just taken on, so naturally there’s a concern that you need to be as good, (well, actually better if you have high standards) than your predecessor.  But being good at a new role, especially one that sees you take a step up in your career can’t happen overnight.  There’s always a bedding in process where you have to learn the role. I use the example of a muscle when explaining how natural it is to struggle in a new role. No matter how good a job description you will never know what you find hard until you are experiencing the role first-hand.  And like a muscle the first time you try to stretch yourself it can hurt and you might be left thinking that you’ll never be able to achieve what’s required. But over time you stretch yourself a bit more, and a bit more until you get to the point where the job becomes easier, more natural.  That muscle is now trained, better, and can take more. That’s how I view promotion.

So the theory being that if you’re successful in achieving a promotion you will struggle to start with. But at what point are you just in over your head? I’ve always been intrigued by the Peter Principle, and although the theory was first founded by Laurence J Peter way back in 1969 it still has some tongue and cheek resonance when we consider what overpromotion is today. The Peter Principle considered that employees would continue to be promoted based on their current competence, and therefore at some point they would be promoted into a position where they became incompetent.

Peter poetically stated that "managers rise to the level of their incompetence".


When people talk of overpromotion it’s usually in a negative sense (just think, would you ever want anyone to say that you were over-promoted in your role?) Over-promotion is the idea that employees are placed upwards into roles they are not suitable for, either because they themselves push for the roles (for title, seniority, money) or because the company needs to find a replacement. And usually quickly. In these cases overpromotion could be the cause of misjudgement by hiring managers.

There’s dangerous pressure in today’s workforce that the definition of career success is the continuous development of the person ‘up’. We congratulate each other for title and status changes and talk in increments of the next step on the career ladder. It encourages everyone to continuously look at what’s next. This can lead to people over-promoting themselves; going for the next role because intrinsically ‘success is only success if you’re still moving upwards’, which is an utterly untrue notion in every other walk of life.

I’ve met and worked with some incredible people who are driven, smart and amazing at their jobs but who do not desire to be continuously promoted. That’s not to say they don’t want to continue learning, developing and earning more money, but it comes down to self-awareness. The characteristic in those people I identified is that they’ve all taken time to think about what they wanted to achieve from their career, and it didn’t necessarily match this idea of always going ‘up’.  A lot of the time promotion will involve enhanced management responsibilities, something that can either be of no interest or is deemed too stressful a challenge. Just because you’re good at your job doesn’t mean you’ll be a good manager. This is where Peter’s theory has some resonance, being great in your current job doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be great in the next one up on the ladder, because that one may involve a new set of skills that you’ve never required before.

Sometimes the overpromotion comes not from the individual, but from the company. When someone leaves an organisation it can open a void that the company is eager to fill quickly. To avoid disruption to the business or it’s clients, to keep the status quo with staff, to ensure the work just gets done. There’s a whole host of reasons that a company would want to fill the position quickly. So they may pluck the most obvious candidate, or the one ‘next in line’ because it’s the easiest thing to do, regardless of whether that person exhibits suitable competence traits for the role. This is a tricky situation because later down the line, at some point both the individual and the company will suffer from the knee-jerk promotion.

I’m not necessary a hater of overpromotion, it can prove to be useful in taking people outside of their comfort zone, and presents the opportunity to bring out a new level of achievement in people.  There are two things about overpromotion that I think are dangerous. The first is either the individual or the company knowing they are overpromoting and failing to seek out the appropriate training and support. The second is that the overpromotion that has no end.  Once the person has “risen to their level of incompetence” no one does anything about it, or worse, they continue on the promotional path upwards because the company and the individual is unable to have that difficult conversation.

And as to whether everyone has a ceiling of competence?  I remain on the fence and open to the discussion…