Avoiding the Peter Principle: Promotion without pain
Supervisors are important conduits and messengers in the cleaning industry. They are men and women who maintain the crucial interface between management and the vast body of workers who, night after night, complete the physical task of cleaning.
A person who is promoted to supervisor crosses over from one style of thought to another. A cleaning worker is concerned with self-satisfaction in terms of pay and the appearance of a particular zone or area. As a supervisor, this same person is expected to place the organization’s goals above all other job-related concerns.
Many times, a superior worker who performs flawless cleaning routines is considered for a lead custodian or supervisor position. Unfortunately, some of the best cleaning workers make ineffective supervisors, and they may not like or even want their new responsibilities.
This phenomenon has been called the “Peter Principle.” Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who conducted extensive research into business organizations, first introduced the Peter Principle in 1969. The original principle states that in a hierarchically structured organization, people tend to be promoted up to their “level of incompetence.” That is, they will be promoted through the ranks based on their competence until they reach the inevitable point where the challenge of the job exceeds their talents.
This process of ladder climbing can go on indefinitely, until the employee reaches a position where he or she is no longer competent. At that moment, the process typically stops, and the employee languishes in that position. The established rules of many organizations make it very difficult to demote someone to a lower rank, even if that person would be much better fitted and more content in that position.
Employees do not want to fail. Yet, when management offers promotions that position employees into their level of ineffectiveness, the employees have no way of knowing the risk beforehand. After all, the offer is made because management is impressed by previous successes and believes the employee can do the job competently.
Why promote from within?
With the potential for failure apparent, some organizations may be reluctant to promote cleaning workers to supervisory positions, or to promote those supervisors into management. Instead, they may be tempted to hire a leader with “proven” experience in another company, whether from the cleaning industry or not.
But while bringing in managers from outside can be useful, there are many sound reasons for cleaning organizations to look within their own ranks for potential supervisors and managers. Promotions can improve morale, for example. Employees, seeing that hard work pays off in the form of promotions and bigger paychecks, will be motivated to stick with the company and be more devoted to their jobs. Thus, companies should make it clear that good candidates for promotions won’t be passed over in favor of outsiders.
A promote-from-within policy, in addition to increasing morale and helping retain high-quality employees, can make an organization more efficient. Employees already know the company’s policies, procedures and systems. The company knows the employees, too — their strengths, weaknesses and job performance.
Organizations that truly want to promote from within typically identify their future managers by utilizing their own performance appraisal rating systems and engaging in formal or informal succession-planning meetings. Managers at these companies ask themselves questions:
- Which employees have had the highest ratings within the past 6 to 18 months?
- Who has exhibited the initiative to perform above and beyond the required job duties?
- Is the employee willing to take on a leadership role with additional responsibilities?
- Has the employee’s performance improved on a consistent basis or fluctuated?
- Does the employee exhibit leadership behaviors or have the capacity to perform well within key supervisor/management competencies?
The last question is crucial to the evaluation process. The competencies (i.e. skills) expected of a supervisor or manager should differ from those of a cleaning worker. While technical expertise at refinishing a floor or extracting a carpet is vital for cleaning workers (and useful for supervisors), leadership skills are vital for good managers.
Listed below are common leadership competencies that should be considered when assessing employees. These are skills, not traits, and they can be observed and measured on a consistent basis:
Problem solving and decision making — A good leader must accurately evaluate all information to solve problems and make decisions in a manner that benefits customers, cleaning personnel and the management team.
Managing performance and delegating — Monitoring the performance of cleaning workers in line with business goals is essential; this must be done while holding oneself, others and teammates accountable for agreed-upon results. Managers also must delegate cleaning assignments to the appropriate workers and match employees’ skill levels with cleaning tasks.
Communication — Managers should share information with individuals and groups in a manner that ensures understanding and encourages input from others. Helping workers succeed in their jobs by defining expectation levels and giving them a strong sense of purpose also is indicative of a strong leader.
Planning and organizing — Job responsibilities and functions must be well-organized by planning time for high-priority goals, requirements, and areas of greatest opportunity.
Respect and trust — Maintaining effective relationships with superiors, peers, and team members based on trust and respect in order to achieve organizational goals and objectives, is key.
Keep in mind it is not advisable to make performance appraisals the only factor in promotion decisions. In conjunction with the appraisal process, assessment tools, including assessment centers, aptitude or personality tests, and interviews, provide the information an organization requires to make successful promotions.
The use of these methods also brings in an outsider’s judgment, in addition to that of the employee’s supervisor, thereby minimizing the risk of bias in promotions. These methods are valid and reliable. The size and resources of the organization determine the options it will consider when identifying future leaders.
Commitment is another crucial factor to consider.The employer should be willing to commit time and resources to training and development.
There always will be skill gaps when promotions occur. But thousands of supervisors and managers have been placed in their current positions without the proper training or tools to help them take on their new responsibilities.
For example, a new supervisor may need to manage a budget, discipline employees, hire, fire and delegate tasks. He or she can learn these skills by receiving continuous coaching or instruction in a classroom environment. If an employer does not invest the time and funding to develop the new leaders, failure is unavoidable.
Employees need to be committed to their new roles, too. They may be supervising peers that they consider friends. Or, they may be managing unfamiliar responsibilities or budgets. Employees should remain open to coaching, constructive criticism and development that will enable them to grow professionally. If employees are not open to new learning situations and difficult challenges, their careers as managers will be short.
Even with the current tools and systems, the promotion process is not an exact science. A company should remain open and flexible to change BSCs should be willing to alter the promotion process in mid-stream if needed and to consult with external resources that are experienced at framing a succession plan.
When the process is done right, employee productivity will improve, turnover will be reduced, and costs will decrease. Subsequently, customers will be more satisfied with the appearance of their buildings and the quality of the work. The investments made in the promotion process will positively impact both the organization and its customers. Establish a promote-from-within system and watch your organization move from where you are to where you need to be.
David Frank, a 25-year cleaning industry veteran, is president of KnowledgeWorx, a consulting and educational firm in Englewood, Colo.
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