It’s all too common for organizations to promote people up the hierarchy until they reach a level of incompetence — a concept known as the Peter Principle. People who do well in one job are promoted into another job because they were good at what they did, not because they have the potential, let alone the abilities, to excel in the next role. Even when a new position requires a different set of skills, it’s past performance that leads to the promotion. Even worse, there’s often no training to enable the newly promoted to acquire the skills they need in order to succeed.

In effect, it might have been better for both employee and company if the promotion hadn’t happened at all.

The Curse of Knowledge

The combination of poor promotion practices and a lack of training stem largely from a dangerous judgment error known as the curse of knowledge: Once we learn something, we have great difficulty relating to someone who hasn’t learned it yet. Once we gain a set of skills, such as managing others, we tend to forget what it feels like to lack them. And once we acquire relevant knowledge, such as the jargon of our profession, we tend to use it — and when we speak to others, we wonder why they don’t understand what we’re talking about. Thus, we have difficulties communicating with others about our professional activities, we can’t teach them the skills they need to learn and it’s hard to collaborate with them in professional settings.

The curse of knowledge is due to how our brains are wired. It represents one of the many judgment errors that scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. We make these mistakes not only in work but in other areas of our lives as well — for example, in our shopping choices, where we often suffer from restraint bias, the belief that we are immune to making impulse buys. (As it turns out, we’re not.) Our inability to turn down a good thing may play into our willingness to be promoted into jobs we’re not qualified or trained to handle.

Whether you’re an employee with ambitions or a leader who wants to reward top performers with a move up the ladder, judgment errors may put you at risk. It’s critical to check if your cognitive bias is hurting you or others in your team and organization and to learn to make:

  • “Good enough” daily decisions.
  • Sound decisions of moderate importance.
  • Deeply thought-out, appropriate decisions when they matter most.

You need to be able not only to notice when you’re slipping into a position driven by cognitive bias but also to know how to undo its hold.

Promoting From Within — Without a Net

As a case in point, let’s focus on how the curse of knowledge derailed one organization’s promotion process.

A northeastern state’s department of transportation faced a serious Peter Principle challenge. It promoted its staff into supervisory roles based on a combination of seniority and prior performance and expected them to pick up their skills on the job without any leadership training. The problem traced back to a curse of knowledge: Most of the leaders in the department had forgotten about the difficulties they had faced as they strove to acquire their own leadership skills.

It took a new human resources (HR) director with an outside perspective to recognize this long-standing practice as a serious issue. She convinced the organization to develop a leadership development training program for newly promoted supervisors. The HR director brought in a firm to consult on creating the leadership development program.

They started with an opt-in pilot training program for supervisors who had just been promoted from within the ranks. Through focus groups and assessments of current supervisors, they identified the eight core skills and relevant knowledge required for the new role. Then, they created a training curriculum to convey these skills and knowledge, along with a mentor program that paired a new supervisor with a supervisor who had at least five years of experience.

Next came a method for evaluating success — determining whether the new supervisors received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations” on their six-month performance assessment. In the past, an average of 63% met this requirement, providing a clear baseline by which to measure the new program.

The results showed that the program was successful. Out of 48 new supervisors, 21 chose to join the pilot training program. Out of these 21, 17 received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations” at their six-month review. In other words, 83e% met the requirement — far greater than the baseline.

Also telling was what happened to the supervisors who did not join the program. Of those 27 supervisors, only 16 received the same rating — 59%, slightly below the baseline. Seeing how the new training curriculum substantially boosted performance, the leadership team endorsed the HR director’s recommendation to train all newly promoted supervisors.

The leadership development training did fall short in one respect: It could not address the fact that the Peter Principle determined how supervisors were selected. Unfortunately, department leaders were unwilling to tackle this issue, as it would have meant challenging the union contract’s promotion guidelines. But the new supervisors did have a much better chance of success. Having addressed the curse of knowledge, they were able to gain the training they needed to grow into their new roles.