Will your top performer today be the under performer of tomorrow?

December 13, 2017 |  Leave your thoughts

A New Principle for Modern Organisations: Retained to the Point of Incompetence.

Many of you will be familiar with the Peter Principle. It is a concept in management theory, which states that people in organisations are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.  By deduction many senior people in organisations may be incompetent in their current positions.

This concept makes sense because we know that as the jump from one position to another in the organisational hierarchy, these positions require higher levels of cognitive thinking, competence and dealing with complexity. We know that all humans have limitations. Ask anyone who has played a sport. At a certain point the demands of the game exceed the player’s ability. So, in years gone past, the best career strategy was to forever apply for more senior positions, until you felt that the next higher position would require more than you could or was willing to deliver.

But now there is a new version of the Peter Principle emerging in modern organisations. Let us call it Retained to the Point of Incompetence. And it is a possible threat to all general and even high performing employees.

What this concept implies is that employees that remain in the same position for many years can become more and more incompetent in their current position because in today’s organisations some positions are evolving at a rapid rate and the employee may not be developing their skills at the same rate.

Why is this happening? Well, in the industrial economy, you could be in a position for years and the tools, techniques and technologies required to do the work that the position required, did not change significantly at all. In fact, the longer you stayed in the position the more experienced you became and the more your colleagues regarded you as an expert. When you left the position, you were the best-placed person to dictate what your replacement should look like. After all, no-one understood the job better than you and your years of experience made you akin to an industry expert.

But since the 1990s this picture started changing. Emerging business, technological and social trends caused changes in the way we plan, manage and execute in the workplace and our positions, once static for so long, started changing as well. Initially it was not so difficult to keep up. The change was still slow enough for the organisation to plan for the changes and to train employees to help them keep up to date with the latest developments. But since 2007 when we saw the perfect storm of new emerging technologies (I-Phone, Facebook, Big Data, Android, Kindle, Air BnB to name but a few) the rate of evolution of some positions are outstripping the ability of the organisation to manage the associated change for their employees.

To put it succinctly, the competence needed to perform the requirements in certain positions started to change and is changing rapidly. Suddenly someone who had been in a position for twenty years was starting to feel the earth move under their feet. As an example, think of our colleagues in Learning and Development. If you were a good training manager in 1995 chances are low that you would still be a good training manager in 2010. From classroom training by ‘the sage on stage’ learning erupted to a world of online learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Mobile learning, Virtual Classrooms and access to the best content anywhere in the world. Manuals were replaced by animated movie snippets, the sage on stage was replaced by the passionate presenters on TED and where once managing classroom seats and lunches were high on the agenda, now training managers had to manage the development of Applications (Apps) and get them into an Appstore.

To keep up to date with all these changes our training manager from 1995 would have had to spend much of their free time on reading, studying and trying out the newly emerging world of learning. Gone are the days where someone else in the organisation would anticipate the changes and prepare the employees for it. Now it is every employee for themselves.

And even though some employees managed to keep pace, most did not.

There is a kind of unique bewilderment that you see in the eyes of a person that knows they were once a value-adding, high performing employee and now suddenly realises that the world has passed them by. It is often difficult and painful for organisations to deal with these situations as these employees are often held in high esteem based on their prior contributions and performance. But as the rate of change escalates, companies will be dealing more and more with situations like this in increasingly shorter periods. Already you can fall behind the curve in three to five years in some positions.

We are now facing two distinct types of positions in organisations – the fast-evolving position and the more traditional slow-evolving positions. In time, organisations will need strategies to staff, recruit for and manage employees in fast evolving positions.

Fig 1: Diagram of Slow and Fast Evolving Positions


  • Start to identify the positions in your organisation that are rapidly evolving.
  • Recruit for incumbents that have demonstrated change resilience, learning orientation and a broader perspective.
  • Change the rules of work for employees in these positions. Perhaps all these employees should have their training budget for books, conferences and seminars. Maybe you can allow them four hours of uninterrupted learning every week.
  • Even the hardiest employee will struggle to constantly adapt and change, so these employees may need more support, mentoring and coaching.
  • HR Departments will need to become experts in all aspects of organisational change and the human response to change.


  • The first obvious answer is to learn, learn and learn. Plan some time every day to spend on reading blogs, posts and other news related to your industry. Also, make time for more serious learning like online courses, books and conferences.
  • Network with your peers in other companies. Probably one of the best sources of relevant industry and functional information.
  • Network with your peers in your own company. As convergence in all aspects of our lives continues to increase, you may be surprised to find how much of what is happening in the other departments in your company is relevant to your positions.
  • Attend online seminars on adjacent fields. More and more changes will come not from your own field of expertise, but from other, often not-related fields. For example, how is Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning going to influence Learning and Development?

If you have children that are less change resilient, help them to find careers where the rate of positional change will be slower, like accountants, actors, artists, chefs, client service representatives and teachers.

Frankly – be paranoid.

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