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Why do incompetent managers get promoted? (medium.com)
221 points by hgsyndrome 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 138 comments





I don’t agree with anything in this article. Incompetent managers get promoted because the things they are competent at are not the things their employees want them to be competent at. There is a dichotomy between traits that get people promoted at large companies and traits that make a good manager from the perspective of subordinates. Those traits only sometimes overlap. Thus the whole argument is predicated on a false definition of “incompetent”.

edit: people might ask, so here's a list of things that, in my experience, get people promoted at large companies:

politics, self-promotion, networking, choosing the right (high-visibility) things to work on, taking credit, delivering new revenue and/or new marketable shiny products/services, having the right senior leadership mentors/wing-people.

Note how none of these really require that a person be good at actually managing a team of people effectively.


Feel like you somehow managed to hit the nail on the head while also completely missing the point. Absolutely agree that often the things that get you promoted and the things that are considered compentency in a manager aren't necessarily the things that make a subordinate view someone as competent. But completely disagree on what those traits are.

In my experience, management tends to view favorably things like delivering on time, and on budget even if the product is compromised. Engineers tend to prefer taking longer and making it correct. Management loves accurate reporting, over communication and documenting. A lot of engineers tend to hate that stuff. Not all but a lot. A manager who isn't technical, or particularly personable but who does a good job of communicating up and out, and choosing high impact projects will do well. Even if they aren't exactly beloved by their direct reports


I think a key error people often make is assuming that the line engineers are always right. If a decision pisses off the line engineers it must be idiotic! The manager must be a fool. Peter principle in action.

This surely happens sometimes. But I’ve personally witnessed a lot of engineers (especially junior engineers) who don’t give a shit about customers or shipping products or building alignment or communicating planning and impact. And to have a successful team/product/company you will need to aggravate them sometimes and they’ll post things on medium about how their boss sucks and that nobody should ever estimate anything or how all tech debt is awful or whatever.

Good managers should support their team’s growth and careers, which should hopefully eliminate some of the “my manager is an idiot” stuff but it can’t eliminate all of it.


> This surely happens sometimes. But I’ve personally witnessed a lot of engineers (especially junior engineers) who don’t give a shit about customers or shipping products or building alignment or communicating planning and impact.

This attitude is what I've usually seen from management, and junior engineers are often the ones who fight against this attitude, before they get too jaded and leave. Management will dishonestly claim successful delivery with zero regard for the actual product, and then force the engineers into 24/7 oncall.

> Good managers should support their team’s growth and careers, which should hopefully eliminate some of the “my manager is an idiot” stuff but it can’t eliminate all of it.

That's great, but it's no substitute for actual understanding of the problems. Planning done by incompetent managers is nonsense since they don't understand the low level details of the problems. From what I've seen, promotions into management are usually related to being best buddies with others in upper management. Incompetent managers will then use all types of excuses to justify their position, "I'm focused on hiring and growth of the team", "It's hard to be responsible for people", "leadership skills matter!" etc. all the while hiring and promoting their fellow incompetent friends and having zero care for the actual product.

At least that's what I've seen at Amazon across multiple teams. Over here the incompetent management cliques will even hunt for the junior engineers brave enough to give the managers bad scores on the daily "connections" pop-up survey.


> This attitude is what I've usually seen from management, and junior engineers are often the ones who fight against this attitude, before they get too jaded and leave. Management will dishonestly claim successful delivery with zero regard for the actual product, and then force the engineers into 24/7 oncall.

Or do junior engineers build a broken system because they don't know better which results in them having to constantly fix shit and burn out?

And then a senior engineer is hired from outside with a lovely mess to clean up while getting paid more than the junior engineer was. And at that point in the company's life, the pressure is usually lower. So it's a nice gig. ;)


That’s possible but not what I’ve seen. I’m on ML teams, the junior engineers often come in with a good CS background and sometimes good software engineering practices, while the highly credentialed senior scientists often refuse to even write unit tests.

That's ML. Senior scientist != senior engineer, right?

Well it's Senior "Applied Scientist". They get to make all the rules and get a much higher salary than sr engineers. ML teams seem to consistently reward the wrong people who can't actually deliver real value.

They might or might not deliver real value, but I’m sure most research scientists view a lot of software as simple implementation rather than real value. I think everyone needs to work together for these complex systems.

> Management will dishonestly claim successful delivery with zero regard for the actual product, and then force the engineers into 24/7 oncall.

There is a balance here. This happens I'm sure. But I've also seen healthy velocity (no mountains of debt, no oncall) be pulled down by engineers who insist on working on what they find fun rather than what is actually good for a product. And these engineers have called their managers idiots to me.


I’ve seen what you describe in engineers at all levels, mostly evenly distributed. Engineers just tend to be very narrowly focused on technical solutions. That’s a problem both in management and culture in the industry.

Your comment is a bit shortsighted because OP did not missed the point. A good manager delivers on time and on budget while complying with the requirements, which the manager negotiates. A good manager provides good and effective reporting, and delivers. That's what a manager is supposed to do, and what a manager is hired for. None of the traits you pinned on engineering leads to competent management. Thus, you expressed your personal opinion while completely oblivious to the management role and it's requirements, and more importantly why a upper manager hires lower managers to get stuff done on time and within budget.

Yes and no. My work is often outside of strict engineering/deliverable teams, so we probably have different perspectives. I'll agree with your points within specific department scopes.

This raises a question in my mind -- do any of these traits actually make the company more successful? Or more generally, are traits that are undesirable to subordinates, yet desirable to higher management, actually good for the company, and are traits that the subordinates value actually detrimental to the company?

The reason I ask is that it would seem that natural selection would take over, and if a management style that employees feel good about actually helps the company thrive, then those companies that promote "bad" managers would go out of business and be replaced by ones that promote "good" management style.


It's common to believe that natural selection leads to an efficient effective result. This is a false and inapplicable. In the first place natural selection just means that the least defective, insofar as survival is concerned, changes that randomly occur pass on to the next generation. There is no guarantee of forward progress along any axis.

Secondly a human power structure a created thing needn't follow any such law. Success in society often depends more on perception than any objective measure of success. While bad decision making can put one out of business eventually there is no guarantee that the ones that follow will be more rational.


In large companies the connection between personal performance and company results is incredibly weak.

At the lower rungs this is because of how little influence there is on the big picture. On the higher rungs this is because everything has been completely de-risked through outsourcing of responsibility, depersonalizing potential blame in case of failure while at the same time allowing full credit basking when things didn't fail.


This is how a Kodak can develop digital cameras yet go bankrupt when their revenue model breaks.

The McDonnell/Boeing merger is a good example of why the natural selection logic is not a good model to think about human interactions.

Natural selection will apply, just not at a timescale we are generally willing to accept.

I would define "incompetent managers" in exactly that way. They lack the knowledge and skills which their role requires and which are needed to make the decisions which are best for the company. Or course that can lead to companies going bankrupt and otherwise performing worse than they would have.

> The reason I ask is that it would seem that natural selection would take over, and if a management style that employees feel good about actually helps the company thrive, then those companies that promote "bad" managers would go out of business and be replaced by ones that promote "good" management style.

I would argue that "bad" managers would generally have higher turnover than "good" managers. And I would further argue that companies have repeatedly demonstrated that high turnover isn't bad when the company is obscenely profitable despite that high turnover.


And I’d say that’s because most managers can’t see the opportunity cost of high turnover or low morale.

I agree

> Or more generally, are traits that are undesirable to subordinates, yet desirable to higher management, actually good for the company, and are traits that the subordinates value actually detrimental to the company?

This issue is not about traits, but outcome. If you delegate a task, you want that task to get done as you expect it to get done. The manager is your single point of contact wrt how that task is being executed, and thus the person who is held accountable for the outcome of that task. You hired someone to handle that task because you want it done but you can't spare your time doing it yourself. The manager keeps you in the loop and briefed about the major sticking points, and works with you to adjust your expectations. Obviously it's important that engineers approve their manager but the primary goal is obviously delivering projects that meet requirements and expectations, not pampering subordinates.


I think this could be put even more simply:

You get promoted for making your superiors happy, not for making your reports happy.

What actually makes anyone happy is going to vary from organization to organization, from person to person, and from situation to situation. I've known managers whose job was 100% just to keep their subordinates happy, but that happened because keeping those roles filled was one of the company's major challenges.


An effective manager does two things first and foremost:

1) Make sure that his/her employees' day-to-day work aligns with the goals of the company

2) Remove any and all roadblocks keeping employees from being efficient and effective in their work, even if it means risking political capital.

I've always fantasized that if I ran a company, when annual reviews came around, the reviews would be bi-directional. In order words, employees must (confidentially) review their managers as well as vice-versa.

Someone will eventually respond, "okay, but if you let, say, engineers have that much control over how a company operates, you're not going to have a profitable company for very long." To which I would respond: that's why you set the company culture and also you have to be diligent about letting people go who are not a good fit for the company's goals.


Having working in management for years, both middle and upper, internal and external, as founder and in other companies: I have quite a strong stance against "confidentially".

Because the reality is that 80% of the typical workforce (maybe even more in the case of engineers) has a lot of comments about how things could be better and how their manager is doing it all wrong. And those comments tend to come out in an unnecessarily strong negative form if you provide an anonymous forum. But most companies don't need more people telling you what's wrong, they need people that take a responsibility in improving it and move things forward.


Are reviews of managers by employees that uncommon? At Google every manager is reviewed by a survey of their direct reports every performance cycle and that certainly feeds into assessment of manager performance.

I can't talk about the company as a whole, but in my circle at Arm reviews come from all the people who work with the reviewed. I did a review of my manager, requested by his manager.

>here is a dichotomy between traits that get people promoted at large companies and traits that make a good manager

This is exactly what the article says


> delivering new revenue

AKA growing the company. This seems like an accomplishment that is very worthy of reward/promotion based on the requirements of ownership (shareholders) and senior management.


Delivering new revenue today is extremely easy and too often overrated.

Delivering new revenue today, without negatively affecting future revenue, is what drives a business to be successfull.


So very true. In many big and stable companies executives have a budget to spend. And it's not their money anyway. I've even been told to spend some money because it has been budgeted already for the year. If I don't spend it we'll get less the next year. Hence I should bend over to find a way to spend it despite it being a waste of money!

There are a lot of things that fall under "new revenue" that aren't healthy. I've seen managers lose money in expenses to put "new revenue" on their group's balance sheets, because they come out ahead due to capitalized expenses. Of course, it creates a vicious cycle to make more revenue each year to keep ahead of your expenses, and pretty soon you abandon strategic projects in the pursuit of quarterly tactical revenue.

> choosing the right (high-visibility) things to work on

This applies to non-manager types too. Buzz words pay the bills. Always be in the growth sector, not the pay the bills sector.


Getting chosen to work on high visibility features and creating new products seems contrary to what most people qualify as “incompetent”.

Now all you are describing feels more like a Product Owner’s job than a manager.

But even putting that aside, employees also want a manager that makes their group look good, takes high visibility jobs and is good at politics. Having a successful manager greatly helps to get promoted, even if that manager tries to take all the credit. Also nowadays peer reviewing is pretty standard, it’s a lot more credible to present oneself as a good manager of a good team.


Popular high school people spend all their time trying to be popular and sacrifice performance in school.

Incompetent managers spend all their time trying to be promoted and not fired and sacrifice their performance and the good of the company.


You described what happens at dysfunctional organizations... and most organizations are some degree of dysfunctional. You are almost agreeing with the article, from the way I read the article and your edit.

Can’t agree more. Currently I am in same situation. I lead a small core technical team that delivers cutting edge tech. My peers lead very big teams that do maintenance work. But my BU head measures success by how many people his reportees handle, new initiatives taken (process wise or fun wise etc ) that bring high visibility and mileage to him. He doesn’t bother about guiding and managing a technically motivated team that brings lot of innovations. He uses same yardstick for all.

Edit: grammar correction


> Incompetent managers get promoted because the things they are competent at are not the things their employees want them to be competent at.

Employers don't have other option. What happens is the people who love coding don't want to be managers and the people who want don't want to code or suck at coding take up manager positions. The problem arises when these managers have to promote. They choose the lesser capable guy who is not a threat to their job. This is what i have seen in software industry.


politics, self-promotion, networking, choosing the right (high-visibility) things to work on, taking credit

A “good” manager gives his team credit for success and takes the blame himself for failures. A bad manager does the opposite. That’s all there is to management really, it’s simple, but very few do it.


Hear ye, hear ye. So very true, and indeed rare. It's the hallmark of great leadership actually. In business or the military.

Yes.

Popular high school people spend all their time trying to be popular and sacrifice performance in school.

Incompetent managers spend all their time trying to be promoted and not fired and sacrifice their performance and the good of the company.


You have managed to say a complete truism by simply redefining the word.

Edit:

"politics, self-promotion, networking, choosing the right (high-visibility) things to work on, taking credit, delivering new revenue and/or new marketable shiny products/services, having the right senior leadership mentors/wing-people." Are these your definitions of competence?


I assumed they were saying those are the characteristics that prove favorable for further promotion/ladder climbing.

Your definition is meaningless - you define competent as ‘whatever gets you promoted’.

> ...I’m not sure if every post will end up being occupied by an incompetent manager, but I do think that when a lot of managers realized they’ve hit their peak or comfort level, they then start to focus on playing politics instead of delivering results to hold on to their position.

I have an alternative theory.

When you're a single contributor you have total control over your productivity and success, but very little impact on your the company's success. Then when you're promoted your control decreases, but impact rises. As you move up the ladder you are constantly trading control for impact.

Eventually you end up as CEO and these numbers converge with a large impact relative to a single contributor but little control over the success of a company. Little enough control that its sometimes hard to distinguish from noise. But your affect on perceived success drops off at a slower rate than actual success. This means to get promoted at higher levels it is more impactful to focus on perceived success over absolute success, and people who are better at this will have more luck getting promoted at high levels. Basically it's a lot easier to convince the board of AT&T that you're doing a 3% better job than to actually get the company to perform 3% better.

This would explain why most non-founder CEO's are so polished.


"As you move up the ladder you are constantly trading control for impact."

What a wonderfully succinct way of expressing this - it also captures why "control-motivated" people for want of a better description struggle so much with even the first steps of ceding that control. Great expression!


Andy Grove mentions something similar in saying the job of a manager is to focus on "high leverage" activities that enable everyone in your work unit to be more productive, which is more valuable than your individual impact.

You are, at one point, using "large impact" and "control over success" as though they were obviously not synonyms.

But if control is "indistinguishable from noise" then it sounds like control=impact, which means I don't understand your overall point and distinction at all. It seems like it gets all muddled along the way.


By control I mean how much do your actions and ability affect the final outcome. For instance a great chess player will win far more often than slightly worse player. The players have almost complete control over the game. Chance, other players, etc have very little control over the game. But in a hand of poker a very skilled player will only win slightly more often than a worse player, so he exerts far less influence over the outcome of the game.

So I think of being an individual contributor as playing chess for $100 and being a CEO as playing a hand of poker for $100,000.

And to take this analogy further you gain a lot of information about a chess player's skill by whether he wins, but very little from a single hand of poker. Did the poker player lose because he got a band hand or because he's a bad player. There is a similar difference between CEOs versus developers. You can figure out if a developer is any good by seeing how successfully he completes a project or task. But it is very hard to figure out how well a CEO is doing by just looking at his performance.


"As you move up the ladder you are constantly trading control for impact."

Brilliantly articulated!!

(I logged in after years just to up-vote this comment).


I wonder how many people who reference "The Peter Principle" have actually read it?

It's short-- maybe 100 pages long-- and IMO not particularly good. It's essentially just a pile of brief vignettes about incompetent people being promoted, many of which feel like they were largely made up for the book. "There once was a guy named bob. He was bad at his job and got promoted. So there." ---- it is not quite that bad but it is also not obviously much better. Analysis is mostly limited to just repeating the headline thesis in a number of different ways.

I suppose it is a fine read if you were already convinced that its premise was true and just want the thrill of having your preconceived notions confirmed by a written page-- which I assume explains its commercial success. If you come into it with any doubts about the premise they will not be dispelled.

Perhaps you could say that by being constantly referenced in any related discussion, "The Peter Principle" by being unchallenging and agreeable while saying little of substance has fittingly risen to the level of its incompetence.

Having lived my entire life in a world this book existed in, perhaps I just don't Get It... maybe there was a time where this idea had to be repeated a dozen times before people would accept that it was a thing that happens, even sometimes. If so, then I suppose it served its purpose. I don't, however, think it has much to offer the reader now.


I've read the book. It's a funny and insightful idea that could be expressed in one page. The author cleverly turned it into a book and made some money.

You don't have to read the book, but like so many "laws", there's a kernel of truth that's worth knowing.


Read it but never made it to the end. It's an essay at most, artificially inflated to book length just to get a sellable format. I do think that it's an important insight into the inner workings of organisations, but it's far from the only truth in the room.

> There once was a guy named bob. He was bad at his job and got promoted.

That is not what the Peter principle (the principle, not the book) is about, that would be the Dilbert Principle.

Peter principle says that people who are good at their jobs are promoted into a different job at which they are not as good.


Anecdotally, I find it true for so many books - that they are longer than needed to get their points across. It is like Important Things (TM) always needs a minimum number of pages to be valuable. And of course, no one would pay for a 2 page book..

Started but lost interest after 50 pages. Too much commenting about itself. And the grandiose "you will understand everything after this book" didn't match the words I was reading.

How many times do people who are good at their jobs get promoted just because there isnt anywhere else to go? You cant make any more money at the level you are without switching companies so you get stuck going into management.

I got promoted to being a manager of a small group just because there wasn't anyone else to do it and I am completely incompetent as a manager of people. I don't enjoy it and didn't ask for it. It is only a source of my continued disappointment in my lack of competence. It does however pay better.


It is even worse. For companies without SME tracks, SMEs find themselves getting almost no raises or comp despite contributing to more and more revenue and/or important/complex work. Then you see stupid things happen, like they find need for and hire 2 or 3 people just so they can justify a 5% raise. Then they find need for and hire more people to justify another 10% raise.

Suddenly you have a company with many FTEs doing almost no meaningful work, existing just to justify tiny increases in the manager's comp. This is really an HR issue -- ultimately they set a set of rules and people play by those rules.

Forward thinking companies I've seen have SME IC tracks where you can grow comp by contributing to more and more influential projects w/o forcing a management track.


I'm at a company that does a good job of presenting a branching ic track that compensates at or above management. The issue is no one wants to become a team lead now. Worse work, more annoying responsibility, similar pay

Sounds like a good policy. But i'm surprised by the outcome -- generally different people are attracted to different routes. Not everyone deserves to be a senior IC/SME.

What does SME, FTE and IC mean?

Surface Mount Electronics, Field Transistor Effect, Integrated Circuit

Generally: subject matter expert, full-time equivalent and individual contributor, respectively.

Subject Matter Expert, Full Time Equivalent, Individual Contributor

Yeah, I have been a manager. Acronyms, acronyms, everywhere!


A creative way to handle that situation is...nepotism. Hire all the buddies of the essential individual contributor instead of giving them a raise or promoting them.

> I got promoted to being a manager of a small group just because there wasn't anyone else to do it and I am completely incompetent as a manager of people.

I could also easily see someone in that situation, and fully aware of it, accept the promotion purely to avoid getting managed by whoever would be the next in line.


Yes, that's unsurprising.

I've also been asked to take on work in engineering because it needed doing and no one better was available.


I'm in the exact same boat as you. I'm currently interviewing for individual contributor roles and trying to accept the fact that I'm going to have to take a pay cut. I think it will be worth it, though, to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile again.

I dont think I understood or appreciated how unpleasant being a manager is. I like working and doing actual work.

What does "incompetent" even mean. Dealing with personnel issues or actually doing valuable work? You get pulled away from doing things of value by having to deal with the interpersonal things that you don't want to do. But you have to do them because people are people. As a result, some of those same people get slighted simply because you can't possibly please everyone simultaneously while also trying to be valuable.

Management is a morass and I admire anyone that is actually "competent" at it. I don't envy them.


I remember talking about this with a business coach when I first managed folks. She said it was an entirely new discipline than what I did before as an IC (software developer), and that I should treat it as such.

No one is born a good manager, the same way no one is born a good software engineer. Ya gotta study.

But it isn't permanent. See also:

https://charity.wtf/2019/01/04/engineering-management-the-pe...


Yeah, most days I am therapist/coach/mom, and while I think I'm actually pretty decent at it, it's not what I want to be doing. It's emotionally exhausting and rarely rewarding.

I couldn’t take the daily crying. Individuals would come to my office, close the door and break down in tears. There was too much emotion over trivial things.

Where are you working that there is daily crying ? oO

Amazon?

I'm curious if your male/father co-worker managers think of themselves (or are thought of) as "dads" at work, or if there are gender biases here.

I'm not sure if that's quite what you asked, but I for one found that becoming a dad made me a better manager. It's very different, but there are parallels, particularly around learning to let go.

Ugh, please spare us

I had a similar experience when I went from being an IC to a hybrid IC/Manager role at a smaller company. My day went from designing, coding and testing to babysitting, bird-dogging HR and Payroll issues, running interference to keep the executives out of my developers' hair and about 10% of my day coding. I'm glad I have the experience but 10/10 would not do it again.

Where I work ICs make a lot more than mid level managers. Directors and above, however, have substantial benefits not only limited to salary.

> How many times do people who are good at their jobs get promoted just because there isnt anywhere else to go?

Sometimes, yes. I also saw terrible developers being promoted into management to get them out of the technical work.


There are solutions to this problem.

My favorite was outlined in https://www.amazon.com/First-Break-All-Rules-Differently/dp/... - namely treat different kinds of jobs as different skillsets and take away the perverse incentive to switch to one you might not be qualified for. Specifically, moving from being an individual contributor to a manager should come with an immediate pay cut. (With opportunities for a pay raise down the road if you prove competent.) And there should be a promotion track for individual contributors. Furthermore, most managers should manage someone who is higher paid than themselves.

When the perverse incentive is taken away, people are more likely to switch jobs because they think that they will be good at the new job, and not because they want to be important, well paid, or whatever.

But this does require a mindset from managers that they are in charge, but not necessarily more important. Which is a cultural shift that is easier in some organizations than others.


That’s a laudable but terrible way to get better managers.

I've witnessed this first hand so often that I'm well aware of what it's caused by: overload at the top.

The end beneficial owners of a business have limited power over it. They exert weak control remotely. Usually this amounts to no more than "hire someone to run the business, reward him based on profits" (and sometimes barely even that).

That person, the CEO, also has limited control. He only has so much energy and time in a day.

Meanwhile, parasitism is the norm. The easiest way to get a promotion is to simply do less work and do more of what you want. Spending all day in meetings sounding important, going on junkets, playing around with new tech for fun, puttering around with emails instead of impactful work, etc. Then you're getting the same pay for less work.

Therefore it requires constant pressure from the top to retain alignment of the staff with profitability. How effective the CEO and his team is in suppressing politics, suppressing friendship based (vs meritocratic) promotions, suppressing false work / lazing (meetings & makework etc), will always hit a limit. It's just as much an area of ongoing development as anything else in business -- how to maintain the productivity of small teams as the organization grows and vice becomes harder to suppress.

So I think this is more likely the cause than people being promoted to the point of incompetence -- the organization grows to the limit of its leader's ability.


In my experience, incompetent managers often don't realize they are incompetent. They are confident and exhibit traits that do not harm others.

Competent mangers often are aware of their flaws and capability gaps. They work too much and are often overly critical of themselves and their projects.


That sounds about right. Also it doesn't matter if they're incompetent so long as their bosses find some use for them. That is, if most of their employees think they suck, but their bosses and grandbosses are happy with them, then they get promoted.

Exactly! When things cannot be measured we are left with perception only.

There is very little difference between management and engineers on that score.

Lack of self-awareness is everywhere. (Including with me.)


I've distilled the following maxim from my workplace experience.

There are two ways to achieve success in this world:

* Be exceptionally skilled at something

* Be unscrupulous

Those traits certainly aren't mutually exclusive, but the counterexamples of folks that have achieved success without either of them seem to be few and far between.

[Obviously we're excluding folks that are "gifted" success.]


The reason you don't usually see both at the same time is that you don't need to be unscrupulous (which can backfire) if you are exceptionally skilled.

Vice versa if you are unscrupulous there's a good chance you can get by without becoming skilled at anything... so you don't.


People who are the most successful are always "all of the above" where that includes talent, training, flexible ethics, privileged background, luck, and drive. Anyone who lacks the utmost in any of those categories is going to be outdone by another of the billion people on the planet. This isn't something you should have to have empirical evidence for to believe.

Competent or incompetent, it seems to me like the people who get promoted (especially at a higher level) are the ones who tell the best stories. Those stories might be true or false, good for the team and organization long-term, or perhaps it only benefit the storyteller and the listener in the moment.

Much of what we wish were attributable to objective measurements of contributions just breaks down to the competing stories we tell each other. The objective data is just there to support the stories, but it rarely stands on its own.


My incompetent manager got promoted because higher level people on the team left.

It's a viable career strategy. It's hard to hire, so if you stick around you'll have more responsibility fall into your lap.

The other thing I notice is that he's great at kissing butt.

As an aside, my advice to people stuck under a crappy manager is to get out ASAP. You can even switch teams and be under the same skip manager.


This article definitely resonates with my experience of 20 years in the engineering and research and development.

Bad organizations tend to promote based upon faulty metrics and, commonly, people are promoted to their natural level of incompetence or are promoted a single level when the best organizational fit may be a 2-3 or three level promotion. e.g. from principal engineer to director of new product development.

Good organizations work hard to figure out peoples strengths and what they enjoy, and then play people in their natural positions (as best as possible).

Someone else wrote in this post that they got promoted from an engineering position to managing a small team and they hate it and don't feel like they are doing a great job. I can relate... a good engineer might not make a good team manager. You need a lot of strengths to team/people manager that a lot of engineers don't even want to have: attention to other people's details, high emotional IQ, enjoy Gantt charts, well organized, to name a few.

... but that same engineer discussed above might make a great director or CTO (or consultant to the CTO, etc.) where they are applying their technical knowledge to investigate technology, plan strategically, and chose technical directions that have immense impact on on the company's future.

I have heard many a "CTO/chief scientist type" describe how much they hate detailed project planning and paying attention to all the little details people are supposed to be working on. But I know good managers who love that stuff.


In larger organisations the main criteria I've noticed for people being promoted is that they want to be promoted and spend most of their time sucking up senior managers - actual performance in their current role frequently has nothing to do with it.

Fully agree with want. But it doesn't have to be an ass-licking contest: if there isn't an oversupply of interested candidates just signalling that you're not overly opposed to the idea of switching into management can be enough.

Usually it's competence at climbing the ladder rather than doing the work. I've seen people shoot up here who do super dishonest things like throw out all the engineers' estimates, make their top estimate down based on when they want to ship and would look best to senior management, then they just throw whatever engineer wasn't their friend under the bus when of course the deadline wasn't met. Meanwhile for their friends they'll move mountains to avoid including any negative feedback in their reviews, etc.. So rising in management here is all about optics and alliances. That guy keeps getting bigger and bigger departments put under him, and even acquisitions made to give him more heads, and he's super dishonest and terrible at the actual tech job stuff of doing things like making accurate estimates.


Read it the last time it was mentioned here. It makes me sad and a little paranoid

It's a great read -- utterly dark and hilarious -- but don't take it too seriously. The author goes out of his way to keep things cynical, and though he uses The Office as a set of examples, he neglects a lot of scenes in The Office that completely negate his points.

Because they are useful to do the "dirty" work. I realised that when I started running my company. There are good employees and bad ones. It's emotionally hard to fire the bad ones, but if we are separated by a few managers, it's easy to make the cold rational decision and let those managers do the rest.

it was a interesting realization when I came to terms that a great many roles in our society exist because emotions are hard for people to deal with. So we "outsource" some large percentage of it to someone to be a buffer and absorb/redirect some of it so that the rest of the process goes smoothly.

Its present in some aspects of nearly every field and while its frustrating to those of us who like to think that we're more rational, it is more likely a genius hack of the human system that lets us get things done at scale/speed than otherwise.


People often say that "homo economicus" is not at all like real humans, but there's a lot of machinery to close the gap.

Sometimes they do (get promoted) and sometimes they don't. The reasons are as varied as the people who hold the positions. That said, this article seems to be tinged with disdain for managers. Many people believe they are smarter or could do a better job than their manager. Most of those people would be wrong, but it's easy to hold irrational beliefs when you don't really know what you're talking about and have no desire to find out.

Often, they get promoted to get them out of the way of day-to-day work and into pie-in-the-sky land where they can't be a drag on the real work of the company.

It's best formulated as the Dilbert Principle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilbert_principle


In Russia (I guess from Soviet times) there’s a similar saying, ‘a good engineer won’t get promoted.’

this is such a blanket statement. i use to have a manager that was an unbelievable programmer and dba. he was an absolute pleasure to work with and THE best manager to date i have ever had. this dude deserved the promotion. he applied the principals he knew as a programmer so things got done and the timelines weren't unrealistic at all. he also respected us and didn't forget where he came from.

Here is some real practical advice (since the article is missing that):

One of the big hotshots in your company likes cycling? Well, you like to go cycling too! Let's go cycling together in the weekend!

Become friends with one (or multiple) of the big bosses, and your career is set. And it's probably going to be a clique of higher ups, since they are all buddies at this point.

Golf is not as popular in Europe as in US, but it's still a place for the higher up's to socialize.

Humans are mainly emotional, not rational. They will promote their friends first. Whether this is good or bad is not the discussion, it's the reality of human nature.


An interesting (albeit long) take on this comes from Venkatesh Rao and is called the Gervais Principle [0]

VERY long story short:

- The people at the top (what he calls Sociopaths although not necessarily in a negative sense) need a layer of people below them to both do the work and take blame for when things go wrong

- The people in the middle (he calls them Clueless) need to be hard working and smart BUT, crucially, not smart in a "political power" sense. In other words, you want them smart enough to do the work but not smart enough to figure out they are being used.

- The people at the bottom basically do the minimum to get by and are just there for the paycheck (he calls them Losers)

It's the middle layer that most people think of when they think of "why is a manager incompetent?". The smarter folks have put that incompetent person there precisely because they are not smart enough to figure out "the game".

[0] https://www.ribbonfarm.com/the-gervais-principle/

Summary of the Principle: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/02/04/the-genealogy-of-the-g...


"but not smart enough to figure out they are being used"

As if, if they were smart enough, they would do...what?

The implication is that you can't have a stable situation in which people are being "used" with their knowledge. That doesn't make sense to me.

My perception is that what keeps the system stable is that different classes of people have different value systems, and they accordingly dehumanize other types, which keeps them from encroaching on others' territory.


It really depends a lot on the company, both its size and culture, but at least in some companies I think incompetents get promoted because ultimately many execs have an inflated sense of ego and like to promote yes-men instead of people with a more critical mind.

> In practice people gravitate to, hire and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability....especially when the ship is smooth sailing.

> However, when a company needs to grow or is in a crisis, CEOs or the Board would often hire highly competent and pushy executives, to crack the whip and fix the boat. Accountability and performance become important attributes.

This is super interesting. But I can't seem to grasp actually choosing to promote the more likable person over the more competent, unless the competent person was downright unlikable.


40 hours a week is roughly a 3rd of your working week. Like a full 1/3 of Mon-Fri is spent working. For executives and managers, those working hours are probably greater -- like 50+ sometimes.

If you're looking at spending 1/3 of your life sleeping, and another 1/3 doing work related stuff, why not spend it around people that are tolerable to be around? That's a huge chunk of your life.

Imagine spending 25 years working with assholes.


> I can't seem to grasp actually choosing to promote the more likable person over the more competent, unless the competent person was downright unlikable.

Just imagine you are a likable but less competent person... who are you going to promote then?

This more-or-less boils down to "A players hire A players, but B players hire C players", except hiring is in practice far more random than that, but promotion isn't.


As a skeptic, the title begs the question: do incompetent managers actually get promoted? How do we know this?

I wonder how much of this is just another form of the Fundamental Attribution Error? Everyone thinks they are the competent ones, surrounded by incompetent people that are bringing them down and preventing them from being truly excellent at their jobs. Sure, I fail to deliver things, but that is because of reasons x,y,z; my manager, on the other hand, struggles because they are incompetent.

In many situations a manager inherits a team of individuals. He is then judged as a manager by how well he gets these individuals to co-operate and perform. If one of the individuals is totally incompetent, it reflects poorly on the managers employee evaluation if he is unable to bring this employee's performance up. His alternative is to get him promoted off the team. I have seen this on a number of occasions.

is can far easier to promote either up or across rather than push them out as many are loathe to work with HR to push out incompetent or under performing.

then of course as others have mentioned, having no where else to promote someone other than to manager. we used to joke where I am about 15 year longevity reward was the manager title


Is the hypothesis that _most_ managers that get promoted are incompetent, or is the question really "Why do any incompetent people get promoted?"

Easy enough to quote dynamics / principles that might lead less capable people to more often be promoted (managing up, kissing up, some Peter principle-related skill limitations) but at the same time as in any field most managers will fall in the middle between excellent and abysmal, and probably be "just OK."

So maybe a simple answer is that the "mean" manager is below our expectations, therefore most managers will be below our expectations?


> In a big company which is established, nobody likes being made to work harder. Everybody is just an employee, sometimes all the way up to the CEO. So a pushy and outperforming executive rocks the cushy lives of everyone.

oh.


This reminds me of the old SGI postmortem memo [0] which said "optimists tend to be promoted". I've seen the exact scenario described in the 'management issues' section of that memo played out several times, so it resonated with me when it came out and I still see it happening today.

[0] http://www.art.net/~hopkins/Don/unix-haters/tirix/embarrassi...


Most often what lowr employees think are parameters for promotion are NOT the real parameters for promotion.

If sycophancy is what it takes to get promoted, the real criteria is sycophancy and not technical merit. There are no incompetent managers being promoted, only good/bad values (again, depends on the perspective of the lower rung employee), in the company.


All this remind me of a quote by an old friend from a long time ago: life is mafia, freedom is to get fscked on your own.

> For example, he talked about a phenomenon of being “kicked upstairs”. This is when a person gets promoted as a sort of encouragement, because higher management wants to show other staff that they too, could be rewarded with progression.

This has always had the exact opposite effect on me.


I saw many people getting promoted for being loyal and on very good terms with the leaders.

Because they have yet to reach their level of incompetence (aka Inverse of Peter Principle)

I once held a presentation titled "How come my boss is an utter idiot" and used "Parkinson's Law", "Peter Principle" and "Dilbert Principle" as source

What did your boss say about it?

well, coincidentally it was in the transition between two jobs (the presentation was not in the company itself)

I think this is quite true... in my company they started creating "coheading" (2 bosses) also in small department or units and this makes the whole process faster and more evident!

Everyone is familiar with the Peter Principle at this point. I believe there is something to it, but it doesn't explain what we find in modern companies. It's too passive a mechanism to explain the malevolence that typically quickly develops in most successful companies.

The Gervais Priciple seems to much better explain the modern organization:

"Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves."

https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-...


This is why McKinsey, others have “Up or out” policy. In theory, it can prevent all this bs. In practice, hopefully it prevents a lot of it

Because they go along with the plan of upper mgmt.

Depends on what the company rewards. That manager is probably very competent at that particular thing.

Team succeeds? Take credit. Team fails? Blame them.

"Incompetent Manager" is a pleonasm.

Cluster B personality disorder



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