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The Peter Principle states that organisations promote people who are good at their jobs until they reach their ‘level of incompetence’, implying that all managers are incompetent. This column examines data on worker- and manager-level performance for almost 40,000 sales workers across 131 firms and finds evidence that firms systematically promote the best salespeople, even though these workers end up becoming worse managers, and even though there are other observable dimensions of sales worker performance that better predict managerial quality. […]

We provide evidence that the Peter Principle may be the unfortunate consequence of firms doing their best to motivate their workforce. As has been pointed out by Baker et al. (1988) and by Milgrom and Roberts (1992), promotions often serve dual roles within an organisation: they are used to assign the best person to the managerial role, but also to motivate workers to excel in their current roles. If firms promoted workers on the basis of managerial potential rather than current performance, employees may have fewer incentives to work as hard. 

We also find evidence that firms appear aware of the trade-off between incentives and matching and have adopted methods of reducing their costs. First, organisations can reward high performers through incentive pay, avoiding the need to use promotions to different roles as an incentive. […] Second, we find that organisations place less weight on sales performance when promoting sales workers to managerial positions that entail leading larger teams. That is, when managers have more responsibility, firms appear less willing to compromise on their quality. 

Our research suggests that companies are largely aware of the Peter Principle.

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