When a new leader is struggling in a new role the cause is often diagnosed as a lack of leadership skills. This may be the case, but often the obvious and overlooked point is the impact of preference.  In addition to lack of skills is there also a lack of a preference to lead people?  In retrospect was the move to a new role actually a poison promotion?

People also (cynically) reference the Peter Principle* as validation that poor performance indicates that a person got elevated beyond their level of competence.  The point is missed that the Peter Principle is also a caution about promoting based on past role needs and not based on future role needs.  Thus the Peter Principle puts role failure responsibility not just on the individual, but on the person (or organization) that took the action to promote the individual.  The Peter Principle is not a reason to feel smug about people underperforming in a role, but actually highlights the need for organizational discipline around talent management.

Keeping preferences in mind, “poison promotions” can occur because:

  • Lack of knowledge by the organization if the person wants to lead
  • Lack of knowledge by the candidate if they want to lead
  • Lack of interest by organization whether the candidate wants to lead (i.e. no other options)
  • Lack of feeling there is a choice by the candidate (i.e. if they don’t take the promotion they will miss out on this and future opportunities)

Reasons senior leaders should care if poisoned promotions are occurring in their organization:

  • Lack of role effectiveness
  • Decreased team effectiveness
  • Dampening growth of the pipeline of talent under the promoted leader
  • Retention and engagement of the promoted leader
  • Retention and engagement of the team under the promoted leader

There are steps that organizations can take to prevent these situations, including:

  1. Develop a talent pipeline that includes information about leadership interest
  2. Simply ask (do not assume) that a leadership promotion is what the person wants and can do
  3. Encourage the person to honestly assess if they would enjoy the change in role. Emphasize all aspects required of a leader: driving for accountability, development, career and compensation discussion.

While prevention is the best course there are still some things to be done to inoculate against potential problems if, in retrospect, you may have inadvertently committed a poisoned promotion:

  • Hit the onboarding discussion rest button. Start over with a frank discussion about what success in the role will look like.
  • Set a clear plan addressing skills gaps. Seek feedback and suggestions from the team for the details required for a comprehensive plan.
  • Conduct frank career discussions that may include accommodation in other parts of the organization if it does not work out

Poisoned promotions are common, but not commonly malicious. They occur primarily because of lack of awareness around preferences and the implications for managing the talent pool.  The key is taking the first step and look at the impact of preferences and make sure the organization is not spending lots of resources on skills when there is root problem with preference.


  • Presented by Laurence J. Peter in his book The Peter Principle