What your boss doesn’t want to tell you but you need to know

Ever wonder why so many people seem to be incompetent in their jobs? Although it was famously explained in a humorous book titled The Peter Principle, there’s an important kernel of truth in it that we all need to chew on. The Peter Principle says that everyone in an organization gets promoted to the level of their competence.

So if you are doing a good job, you get promoted — and promoted again, until you start screwing up at which point you’ve reached your ultimate destiny in the company, your “level of incompetence”.

they made me the bossThe joke is that work is accomplished by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. The Peter principle is no joke, however. The truth is that your strengths lift you up and your weaknesses weight you down. Think of a hot air balloon. It rises until the lift from hot air is in equilibrium with the weight of its ballast. In the same way, as you rise up in the company, your weaknesses eventually limit your ability to rise further.

Understanding how your strengths and weaknesses shape your career will help you work smarter and find the right intersection where your needs meet those of the company and your boss. Here are some of subtleties to consider:

  • Your strengths and weaknesses are all relative to a specific environment. Your strength in one situation may be a weakness in another. In my company, our culture places a great deal of emphasis on performance, but not ‘at any cost’ because we value integrity and teamwork also.  As a result, focusing on results at any cost would be perceived as a weakness in my company, but could still be a strength in another organization.
  • Your strengths and weaknesses are also relative to the position you hold. If you like to spend your day talking to other people, that would be a strength in our sales team but a weakness for a computer programmer.
  • As you rise up, your personality has a greater impact on the performance and motivation of the people around you. Senior managers typically reach the stall-point in their careers because of limiting personality traits. More bluntly, their personality flaws and undesirable behavior eventually hold them back.

your incompetent bossWhat kind of traits and behaviors would prevent you from becoming a CEO? Some are the same issues we covered in other lessons – too arrogant, doesn’t listen, too confrontational, not flexible enough, too much of a risk-taker, too controlling, and dislikes communicating.

It’s very common for successful individuals to have both strong strengths and strong weaknesses – they often go together. It’s also true that you can reach the stall-point in your career when you lack critical functional experience, in sales or engineering, for example.

This is because many successful people are driven by some type of trauma from their childhood. As a result, they are motivated by fear, need to be in control or desire for recognition and status. This can be as simple as someone driven to avoid the conditions they experienced as a child.

handling criticism at workWhy the psychoanalysis?

  • First, if your strengths flow from a reaction to childhood trauma, you need to know that your strengths taken too far become weaknesses – weaknesses that you will have difficulty seeing.
  • Second, if you are stalled because of a strong weakness, improving your strengths will accomplish little.
  • Third, your boss is unlikely to want to talk about these type of weaknesses with you. Your commitment to seeing your weaknesses and reducing them is critical to your advancement.

For further reading, Driving Excellence has very relevant chapters titled ‘The Weakness Principle’ and ‘The Human Change Process.’

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

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  • Kaelyn DeVries

    Before entering graduate school I worked for a mid-sized international nonprofit which, I quickly learned, ran like a corporation. I started out as a program assistant, providing research and administrative support to more than 40 people, including the Chief Operating Officer (COO). I was challenged on many levels – my skills and capabilities, tenacity, efficiency, initiative, emotional intelligence – and I was promoted three times in five years. Just starting out in my career, it was the best professional experience I could have asked for. I once commented to the COO that I felt lucky to have been given so many opportunities at the organization. He explained to me that luck had little to do with it and claimed it was my proficiency in completing every task I was assigned. I thought to myself that he must be wrong, that it had to be luck (how could I be that good?) and I began to pay closer attention to my strengths and weaknesses.

    In terms of my strengths, I noticed that I pay great attention to detail, I follow instructions (and I always take notes), I’m kind of a perfectionist and I generally put A LOT of effort into turning around high-quality work. But as I moved into different positions and my job was of increasingly higher impact and importance, my weaknesses began to stand out like a sore thumb. For example, I have trouble with public speaking, my desire for perfection can lead to inefficiency and, at the time, I generally lacked experience and professionalism, especially when things didn’t go my way.

    And then I was thrown into the fire. I found myself working as the Regional Technical Advisor for Latin America programs, based in Guatemala City. I was now accountable to the Guatemala Country Director and to teams of local staff that I had to manage, motivate and grow. While, as a program assistant, I was good at listening and following someone else’s directions, as a manager who had to communicate a collective vision and rally the country teams around it, I was not so good. I screwed up all the time and I was sure I was in over my head. I realized that for all the strengths that had actually put me in that position, I couldn’t escape the weaknesses exposed by being there.

    I spent two and a half years in Guatemala learning from, addressing and trying to improve on my flaws (whether they were due to my personality or lack of know-how). The experience was invaluable, as I began to appreciate both my strengths and weaknesses and recognize all the areas in which I needed more knowledge, skills and practice. In the end, it was this experience that led me to finally pursue a master’s degree. After all, we never stop learning, and it is through preparation, humility and an open mind, that we can begin to change those things that always seem to hold us back.

  • Brooke Schlossenberg

    Admitting one’s weaknesses is never easy. I have worked diligently my entire life to always go above and beyond in everything I was a part of: school, sports teams, clubs, musical performances, jobs, fieldwork placements, and more. I became accustomed to accepting praise for my hard work, but it has always been more difficult for me to accept criticism. When I receive criticism, I often feel as though I have failed.

    In my a cappella group, I quickly became a friend to all the other members due to my desire to appease others and my friendly, flexible disposition. After a year in the group I was elected president. In this position, I discovered that my quality of being a friend to everyone was a strength as a general member but a weakness as president, for it made it more difficult to take control of the group and make decisions that would undoubtedly upset some number of members while satisfying others. Over time, I have learned how to adapt this quality and utilize other strengths in order to be a successful president for the group.

    In my first fieldwork placement for occupational therapy school, I did my best to meet all of the criteria and get feedback from my supervisor. I finished everything not just on time, but ahead of time, and made sure to meet all of the requirements for various assignments. At the end of the ten-week experience, I sat down with my supervisor to discuss my overall score and performance. I had received mostly threes and some fours (on a scale of one to five), because a three meant that I had successfully met all criteria while fours and fives meant I went above and beyond what was required. She explained she was directed to give mostly threes because my peers and I were only beginners, but I still felt let down by the score I received.

    This lesson taught me the importance of understanding my weaknesses, including that of my dislike for criticism. I will use this score to exceed requirements in the future in hopes for bettering my prospects as an occupational therapist in the near future.

  • Jamie Compasio

    It is important to know what one’s strengths are. A strength in one industry may be a weakness in another industry. In my current position, a weakness of mine is unwillingness to accept criticism. I know that is a fault of mine but when it is delivered as you keep doing such and such wrong without any advice how to change said deficiencies, trying to change becomes difficult. Accepting one’s faults, learning from them, and improving are all necessary traits for success in business as well as in life.

  • Leo Franzone

    Acknowledging one’s own strengths and weaknesses involves a degree of wisdom and empathy. I believe it is difficult for many people to think introspectively and thus they often struggle to overcome problems that are really internal. This article encourages people to analyze their strengths and weaknesses in order to use their time more efficiently and make decisions that will have a positive influence on their lives.

  • Orshi

    Thank you for sharing this interesting point of view. One of the hardest things in life is to truly admit our weaknesses mainly to ourselves and work on improving our strengths. If one could reach the point of of being honest and willing to improve either part she or he is on a good way to reach her potentials.

  • Alan Brawley

    I believe that personal growth, within the workplace, can help shape who you are outside of it. Knowing and

    understanding yourself is one thing, but to be honest about those traits will enable you to enhance strengths and grow in

    your weakness. If you are honest about who you are, then you can better analyze your work environment and how it is

    that you best fit in.

  • Carolina ginorio

    I have learned that it is extremely important for you to really recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are in reference to the given situation or task at hand. If you focus on improving your weaknesses which is just as important, if not more so, than focusing on just your strengths because ignoring your weaknesses will not make them go away. And we tend to ignore our weaknesses, we could have less weaknesses if we turned them into strengths.

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.