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.
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
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 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.
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. ;)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is exactly what the article says
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, without negatively affecting future revenue, is what drives a business to be successfull.
This applies to non-manager types too. Buzz words pay the bills. Always be in the growth sector, not the pay the bills sector.
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.
Incompetent managers spend all their time trying to be promoted and not fired and sacrifice their performance and the good of the company.
Edit: grammar correction
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.
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.
Popular high school people spend all their time trying to be popular and sacrifice performance in school.
"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 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.
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!
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.
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.
(I logged in after years just to up-vote this comment).
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.
You don't have to read the book, but like so many "laws", there's a kernel of truth that's worth knowing.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, I have been a manager. Acronyms, acronyms, everywhere!
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.
I've also been asked to take on work in engineering because it needed doing and no one better was available.
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.
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:
Sometimes, yes. I also saw terrible developers being promoted into management to get them out of the technical work.
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.
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.
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.
Lack of self-awareness is everywhere. (Including with me.)
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.]
Vice versa if you are unscrupulous there's a good chance you can get by without becoming skilled at anything... so you don't.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
Summary of the Principle:
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's best formulated as the Dilbert Principle
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.
> 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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
This has always had the exact opposite effect on me.
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."
Also remember, if you wouldnt promote the person away from you, you would basically demote or keep him around, neutral-moted. So your lack of support creates a antagonistic figure in your workplace.
So lets play nice, push the hr-failure to the waterhead, where they can pea-cock around with a harem of secretarys, and hopefully do neither good nor harm.