The Curse That Causes Promotions to Fail
It’s tragically common for people in organizations to be promoted up the hierarchy to their “level of incompetence,” a concept in management known as the Peter Principle. They are promoted because they did well in their previous job, not based on their potential to meet the needs of the new position into which they are placed, even when the new role requires a wholly different set of skills. Moreover, there’s often no training for the new skills they need to learn to succeed in their new position.
This combination of poor promotion practices and lack of training stem largely from a dangerous judgment error known as the curse of knowledge, referring to the fact that when we learn something, we face great difficulty in relating to someone who doesn’t know it.
In other words, once we gain a set of skills, such as in managing others, we tend to forget what it feels like to lack these abilities; once we acquire relevant knowledge, such as the jargon of our profession, we tend to use it to speak to those who don’t know this jargon, and then wonder why they fail to understand.
The curse of knowledge error comes from how our brains are wired. It represents one of the many dangerous judgment errors that scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases.
What about the curse of knowledge? A case in point: a quickly-growing manufacturing company faced a serious Peter Principle and curse of knowledge challenge. Staff got promoted into supervisory roles based on a combination of seniority and prior performance. Then, newly-promoted supervisors were expected to pick up the skills on the job, without training in leadership. The problem stemmed from the curse of knowledge, with most of the leaders in the department of transportation forgetting the difficulties they had in developing their own leadership skills.
A newly-hired HR Director, coming in with an outside perspective, recognized this long-standing practice as a serious issue. She convinced the department’s leadership to develop 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.
We started with an opt-in pilot training program for supervisors newly-promoted from the ranks. Through focus groups and assessments of current supervisors, we identified eight core skills required for this role as compared to their previous positions, along with some relevant knowledge.
We then created a training curriculum that conveyed these skills and knowledge, along with a mentor program teaming a new supervisor with one who had more than five years of experience. We also created a method of evaluating success, namely seeing whether the newly-promoted supervisors received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations” on their six-month performance assessment. In the past, an average 63 percent of those promoted met this requirement, providing a clear baseline by which to measure our intervention.
Out of 48 recently-promoted supervisors, 21 chose to join the pilot training program. Of these 21, a total of 17 - 83 percent - received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations,” much higher than the baseline. Out of the 27 supervisors who chose not to join the program, only 16 received the same rating, or 59 percent, so around the baseline. Seeing how the new training curriculum substantially boosted performance by new supervisors, the manufacturing company’s leadership endorsed the HR Director’s desire to train all newly-promoted supervisors.
I regret that such leadership development training didn’t address the manner in which the Peter Principle determined how supervisors were selected. Unfortunately, the leadership wasn’t willing to discuss this issue, as it would mean challenging the union contract’s promotion guidelines. Still, at least the new supervisors had a much better chance of success due to addressing the curse of knowledge.
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. They include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from his research background as a behavioral scientist with over 15 years in academia, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. He lives in Columbus, Ohio (Go Bucks!) and in his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.