Unless you are a very lucky person, you probably have encountered a boss or two who was not particularly good at being a boss. So new social science research offers up an explanation about why that might be. Noel King sat down with NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to find out more.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: So a lot of us, yes, have had the experience of having a boss who just doesn’t seem particularly competent, and you’re saying there may be a reason.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: There is, unfortunately. And I think in some ways, it’s an innocuous explanation, Noel. I was speaking with Kelly Shue. She’s a finance professor at Yale University. And she told me about an old idea known as the Peter Principle. People in organizations rise to their level of incompetence.
KELLY SHUE: The Peter Principle is an idea that the types of skills that lead to success at one level within the organizational hierarchy may not be the same types of skills that lead to success in the next level in the hierarchy.
KING: OK, listen, I feel like I’ve had this conversation with numerous colleagues at numerous jobs.
KING: What is new here?
VEDANTAM: Well, what’s new here is that Shue and her colleagues, Alan Benson and Danielle Li, tried to actually test the idea. They obtained hard data from more than 200 companies and more than 50,000 workers. All these companies were involved in sales. The researchers tracked the workers between 2005 and 2011. In this period, about 1,500 workers were promoted to become managers.
SHUE: We find that the best salespeople are very likely to be promoted into manager positions. And then when they become manager, they appear to be worse at the managerial job role. In other words, they make their teams less effective at selling products.
KING: OK, so now it seems like both common knowledge and also various research backing it up. Why don’t companies realize that you shouldn’t promote people to their level of incompetence?
VEDANTAM: In many ways, Noel, I think the idea of the Peter Principle is widely understood. The problem is that acting on this knowledge runs up against a bedrock American principle, which is the idea of the meritocracy. You have to reward the best worker. You have to promote the most productive staffer. Now, sometimes, of course, good workers do become good managers. But regularly, you not only get a bad manager, you’ve lost one of your most productive workers.
KING: All right, so what can companies do about this?
VEDANTAM: Well, companies are playing around with different ideas. One idea is to have two tracks. You reward highly productive people through incentives, and you promote the people who have people skills. People who actually know how to get things done, work with other people – you promote those people into management. Shue and her colleagues find that companies with such incentive programs are less likely to fall victim to the Peter Principle.
KING: So you have a really good salesperson. You don’t make him a manager; you make him a senior salesperson.
KING: Shankar Vedantam is NPR’s social science correspondent. Thank you, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Noel.
KING: He is also the host of the podcast and radio show that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It’s called Hidden Brain.