Real Leaders

Why Promotions Fail: How to Overcome Blind Spots and the Curse of Knowledge

It’s all too common for people in organizations to be promoted up the hierarchy to their “level of incompetence.” In management, the concept is known as the Peter Principle.

People are promoted because they did well in their previous job, not because they have the potential or the skills to meet the requirements of their new role. In fact, there’s often no training for the new skills they need to learn to succeed in the new position. 

This combination of poor promotion practices and lack of training stems mainly from a dangerous judgment error known as the curse of knowledge: once we learn something, we can’t relate to someone who hasn’t learned it. For instance, we learn how to manage others, then completely forget that not everyone knows how to do it. Or we learn the jargon of our profession and use it with those who don’t know the terms, baffled as to why they don’t understand us. We can’t teach others how to do our roles because we can’t communicate the skills and knowledge the position requires.

The error stems from how our brains are wired. It’s one of a whole range of cognitive biases that cause us to make mistakes in all areas of our work and lives. Fortunately, there are practical strategies we can use to overcome these dangerous judgment errors.

Here’s a case in point:

A Northeast state’s Department of Transportation was having a severe Peter Principle challenge: staff were being promoted into supervisory roles based on seniority and prior performance, not the proven ability to supervise. Nor were they given any advance training: the just-promoted supervisors were expected to pick up their newly required skills on the job. It was a clear instance of the curse of knowledge: department leaders had forgotten how hard it was to develop their leadership skills. 

Thankfully, a newly hired HR Director who had an outsider’s perspective was able to see the flaws in this approach — and pointed out the seriousness of the issue to department leadership. She convinced them to create a leadership development training program for newly-promoted supervisors. The HR Director brought in Disaster Avoidance Experts to consult on creating the leadership development program. The opt-in program, meant for new supervisors promoted from within the ranks, included new skills and relevant knowledge and was soon expanded with a mentoring program.

In the past, a six-month performance review of new supervisors found that 63 percent on average met or exceeded expectations — and that became the department’s benchmark. When performance reviews were conducted for those who had voluntarily joined the program, the rate jumped to 83 percent. But of those who did not participate, it fell to 59 percent — a clear indicator that training was an effective way to overcome the problem. Based on the success of the program, the Department of Transportation adopted a commitment to training all of their newly promoted supervisors. While the roots of this flawed promotion system could not be addressed due to contracted promotion guidelines, the curse of knowledge could be alleviated.

Every organization should assess whether or not cognitive biases are harming your teams and your success. If so, there are effective techniques for making and implementing decisions on how to mitigate the damage and launch better long-term strategies. Using structured decision-making will put you in a better position to make those daily decisions quickly, those more important ones more thoroughly, and those significant decisions more accurately.

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