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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  • Victoria

    Acknowledging one’s weaknesses can be frightening especially if that weakness is preventing one from moving forward in his or her career. This article encourages me to examine my strengths and weaknesses objectively in correspondence with my workplace. It is not easy to admit I have shortcomings, but I know that in doing so, I will better understand how I can succeed.

  • RSerrano

    I found this article to be true in some parts, but false in others. the quote, “Your strengths lift you up and your weaknesses weight you down” is true in the way that you can work as hard as you want to improve the big things, but you wont get far without fixing the little things.

    The part that I didn’t find to be true was when it said that work is accomplished by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. There is always room for improvement, no mater how high up in the rankings you’re at, there will always be some way to better yourself and or the company.

  • Aram Cerritos

    This article reveals a truth that most people do not want to accept. That is, that even when you work hard and relentlessly you do not always win. This is because being human brings inherent faults, however as this article points out there are certain aspects we can work on to distinguish ourselves from everyone else.

    There are key factors to remember, one of them being that everything is relative. Perception of a situation will subsequently affect how a person reacts to it. Also that the situations presented to individuals will vary in accordance to the position a person holds or the environment the reside in

  • Kfowler

    This lesson about strengths and weaknesses reminds me of a conversation that I had with one of my students. She was nervous about going on an interview, and was not sure how to answer when an interviewer asked her what her weaknesses were. I let her know that her weakness is not necessarily a bad thing; but it is something that can vary from one job to another as mentioned above.

    For example, my weakness when I worked in a clinic was that I got too caught up in conversation sometimes with my patients which slowed up the doctor. Ooops! However, when I worked in retail the customers loved it. My boss even loved it because it showed quality customer service. When people are buying a product from you, they like to feel like you care about them and they are not just money.

  • S.Bedford

    I have been on my job for ten years, therefore I’ve always thought that my experience and schooling would put you in the fore front when applying for jobs. Unfortunately this has been proven to be untrue. Although I’ve worked in several departments and have lots of experience within the company, I often get over looked when I apply for inside jobs. I consider my experience and knowledge of the company as one of my greatest strengths, however, I never thought that this could be considered a weakness. This story really shed light on the subject for me and gave me something to think about.

  • Stacy Danner

    Working for a large healthcare corporation, one would think having experience would put you at the front of the line when it comes to promotion time. Sadly, this is not the case at the company I work for. I feel that I’m competitive and I know what I’m doing, I don’t, however, feel that I’m egotistical about it. I’m twenty-six with ten years in the healthcare field, yet I’ve been passed over twice for a promotion to those who have far less experience.

    So I suppose by address my childhood trauma of always being left out or left behind would be my weakness. I tend to hold it against that lucky person who got that promotion over me, but not assessing my own person to understand why I did not get it. Come Monday, I do believe I will be asking my supervisor what steps I need to take to improve for the next promotion.

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  • lashawn wright

    This story shared some light on how upper management consider promoting you. Some people may think that they were overlooked for something that has nothing to do with the real reason and the strength of the weakness holds true. This story has made me realize that I may be trying to prove something but, to whom? This is a soul searching question to myself because I do not like to fail. I am anal about my work which can lead to tunnel vision. Tommorrow will start a new day for me as I am trying succeed in all that I do.

  • This lesson on strengths and weaknesses is very true. We all base our performances on how we judge ourselves. I know this because I have always done this wondering if I am doing a good enough job for my employer. I have been at my present employer now on and off for 4 years now. I started off as a cashier and now I am management. Even though my weaknesses on some aspects of my job performance did not outweigh my strengths to advance positions. The company felt I was strong enough because I took control of the store that I worked in made sure it continue to operate while the acting manager was out working a different location. The corporate office saw how I took control and kept up good customer service offer me the management position. I still wonder time to time if I am doing a good job, but when I receive word via from my district manager that the President of the company likes what I am doing, I am satisfied.

  • I totally agree with how strengths in one job can be weaknesses in another. In high school I was a manager at Mcdonalds and I learned to be more outgoing about what needs to be done and how things can change for the better. I now work at Best Buy as a sales consultant and I think when I tell a manager what needs to be done and how things can change for the better, it steps on their toes and this didn’t make me very popular with management. Because of this I know that I will never be able to move up in Best Buy.

  • collegestudent15

    Great article. The hot air balloon analogy provides a vivid
    example of how at a certain point, no matter how high we might go, our
    weaknesses will eventually stop us from climbing any higher, like the ballast
    in a balloon preventing it from rising to higher altitudes.

    As the article points out, recognizing our weakness can be
    difficult, if not impossible, because of their genesis in our childhood, making
    them a part of us, our identity, who we are. Having to acknowledge our faults
    can be a painful process, an agonizing experience like pulling a Band-Aid off, the
    pain being so great we would rather just leave it on – but as we know, taking
    it off is better for the wound.

    So too with our weaknesses. Although it might be hard to
    recognize and accept our faults, in the end it is for our own well-being and
    happiness, letting us rise to higher heights, jettisoning the ballast holding
    us back.

  • sschnell

    I currently work at a Cold Stone Creamery. I have worked here for over two and a half years now. Around one year of working here, I was promoted from Crew Member to Shift Leader. The responsibilities are far greater now than before as a Crew Member. Now I have a key to the store, and have to make sure everything is in order before I lock up at the end of the night. If there is an issue with anything from that night, it falls on my shoulders.

    When there was a task that needed to be done, I usually would just do it myself correctly instead of having one of the other workers do it. I didn’t trust the other workers to do a task like cleaning the drains or scrubbing the floors as efficiently and correctly as I would. This was my biggest weakness working as a Shift Leader.

    I knew I needed to overcome this and I did. I started having the Crew Members show me that they could do the task perfectly and they proved me wrong. It was hard to change my ways completely. It was so worth it though. After having read this lesson, I can see that it’s so true and will come in handy later in life. I know that even if I have great strengths, my weaknesses can bring me down. I will always remember to work on strengthening my weaknesses before trying to improve my strengths.

  • In order to be a success you need to set your goals and know what your end in mind is. When you are able to know what your end in mind is you are able to re-trace your steps of success from goal and what it took to accomplishing it. If it is a degree; how many courses it took to obtain it. Life is about challenges however in the face of adversity how we can overcome them. If we use the end in mind steps for everything that we do; we are able to face many of life challenges because the goals are then planned out.

  • Monique K

    This lesson speaks volumes to me. I work for a large
    specialty retail company and the company prides itself on its level of customer
    service. Additionally, the company has a very diverse and unique set of
    employees. One of the things we are encouraged to do at work is “be yourself.” I
    absolutely loved the fact that I could be myself, and be celebrated for doing
    so. I started out at a location in the northern states. At my first store, I
    was bright, bubbly, and sweet. Unfortunately, my straightforward, no-nonsense
    self was not quite in line with way of the south. So, I was shocked when I
    transferred to a store in the south and was perceived as being short, and
    disconnected from our customers. I noticed a direct correlation between how I
    was perceived and how I was NOT promoted at my new store.

    Prior to moving to the south, I was on a track that would
    lead to a better position. However, up north my personality was seen as friendly,
    inviting, and sincere. Upon moving, I noticed an immediate halt in my progress.
    This shock led me to reevaluate my interactions and think twice about the way
    my words could be perceived. Now, my managers say that I offer one of the
    highest levels of customer service and that they see a true connection between
    our customers and me. I notice a more favorable work schedule, more flexibility
    in my activities during the day, and a more overall enjoyable workday.

  • Dana Leamaster

    “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.” I took this one quote and thought about it hard, I have noticed that many of my strenghts are a reaction from a childhood trauma, well many of them actually. I over came a lot of things that should have effected me in a negative way and I turned them into a positive reaction. I now I am much stronger and I do not let anyone tell me I am weak. I do know I have weaknesses and I try to work on them every day, but like this quote says sometimes I have a difficult time seeing them as weaknesses.

  • slovjon

    I’ve came from a
    long line of the have not, I am the first of 5 daughter to complete her
    degree. Learning more about
    understanding my strengths and weakness help me understand where I stand in my
    career goals and what I need to do to improve.

  • Danny

    I live in a small town where you fit into a category of either the “have” or the “have-not”. I chose to “have”. The reason I say this is because for so long I have been the have-not because of lack of education.

    Since I’ve started school I have reshaped my thinking, and now have had several doors open for me just because I chose to get an education. One of the co-owners of the establishment where i work said these words “Be cool, and stay in school” kind of corny, but oh so true.

  • Elke

    I have always said
    that I was not good at sales, that actually my husband was the perfect sales
    person but not me. I have being working for my company for 6 years, and I
    became sort of the regional trainer. I have reached a top level in my field, at
    least in the local office.

    A sales position
    opened at the beginning of the year; therefore, since I love new challenges I
    applied for it. I did get the position, although I am struggling after 6 months
    in the job. It is different to be out there offering the services, than to work
    in the office and manage the process internally.

    I am the type of
    person who does not give up easily, but sometimes I wonder if it is me being
    stubborn and not letting go, or it is just the proper time that takes to create

    Whatever the reason
    is, I only know that I will keep trying until all my resources are exhausted. I
    like to succeed, thus learn new techniques in other fields; I will pray and
    hope that the outcomes start showing promptly.

    I have read the
    article about what your boss doesn’t want to tell you, and I agree completely
    that I need to work on my weakness. It is true that the common people are
    either good as a computer programmer, or as a sales person; but usually not
    good in both.

    On the other hand, my
    mother taught me that I can be whatever I wanted to be, and that nothing was
    impossible. Thus, my father also taught me that perseverance makes the winner.

    I am going to succeed in this new position; I have not surprised
    myself when I accomplished something in the past, because I set my standards
    high all time. And if I did not reach my goal, at least I knew that I have
    tried my hardest and I never see it as a failure, but more like an experience.
    I have constantly learned something at work; therefore, when something is
    learned it should not be considered failure at all!!

  • sam

    I really felt that not enough information was given in the “what traits….would prevent you from becoming a CEO” so I will comment on this. In the world of organizational behavior their is a term called emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence is how well people are 1.) Aware of their own emotions 2.) Understand the emotions in others and 3.) be able to control and manage these emotions. According to F.I. Greenstein, emotional intelligence plays a large roll in determining successful and unsuccessful presidents (who are considered the ultimate CEO’s in my opinion). It is very important that successful CEO’s have a large degree of emotional intelligence in order to motivate the employees and understand them as well. If you as a CEO can’t understand what your employees are feeling, and lack EI, your employees,will suffer and in turn, your company.

  • I have learned that the leader that is leading you may have the same goals. Watch who you share your career goals with.

  • Amber Beren

    I have learned that it is extremely important for you to really recognize your strengths and weaknesses in reference to the given situation or task at hand. Focusing on improving your weaknesses it just as important, if not more so, than focusing on just your strengths because ignoring your weaknesses will not make them go away.

    I work in the youth hockey department at my school and while I am strong in the people skills and filing sort of stuff, I lack a strength in being very computer and technology savvy. I found that in my job, the best way to deal with this weakness was simply to ask for help. While this article says that my boss is likely to NOT want to listen and talk about my weaknesses, but boss is very helpful and supportive as long as I ask for help.

    This article also helped me realize that my strength of being a people person and really being able to work well in groups and teams will help me to succeed when I get into my career after school is over, as well as help me to be successful in school.

  • AKovach

    I have learned over the years that the statement that the intensity of your strengths is very well matched with the intensity of your weaknesses. Maybe this is another example of “every action having an equal and opposite reaction.”

    I realized that my biggest weakness was that I could not stand stupid, long before it was Ron White’s tag line. I found that the best way to deal with this weakness was to become the consummate teacher. I have not become any more tolerant of people who are just plain clueless, I have just learned to be part of the solution.

  • S Arellano

    We all have strengths and weaknessess and it is our job to polish our strengths and improve our weaknesses.  I agree with  the comment that strong strengths are tied to strong weaknesses.  For example, I see that I have excellent analytical skills and this had been accompanied for a long time in my life by a strong shyness. 

    I have worked to steadily improve my ability to communicate effectively with other people, including strangers.  It was at first difficult, but one must face their fears in order to overcome them.  Facing fears in stages that are manageable works great as it builds confidence upon successfully overcoming at least a bit of fear.

    Over the years, I have become able to initiate conversations with strangers.   I have become more fluid in my ability to talk about varied subjects to strangers and have grown to build and hold successful friendships and relationships.  I have noticed that it is easier for me to interact with people with a similarly introverted core personalities and it is my goal now to steadily learn to interact with people with more extroverted personalities.  I am excited about this goal and know that it will open new doors for me and make my life more interesting and well-rounded.

  • Gkhernand25

    Along life’s path I made many decisions which have
    helped me become successful; however, what I have recently learned about myself
    is that the things that are keeping me from reaching my full potential are –
    indecisions, which are linked to my weaknesses.

    It is easy to focus on one’s strengths and to keep
    moving forward but our weaknesses play a key role in our success.  If we become aware of our weaknesses, (and why
    they exist) we can put controls in place to help us overcome those weaknesses
    when they arise.  I am fortunate that I’ve
    attended many training and development seminars and that I became aware of my
    weaknesses early in my career and I have created controls to help me address
    these weaknesses.  I am not one hundred
    percent in agreement that they are tied to a childhood trauma, at least not one
    that I recall.  However, I know they
    exist because of the environment in which I grew in and the challenges that I
    faced as a child.

    Like our strengths, our weaknesses are a part of us and
    if we work to accept and embrace them, then we can focus on how not to let them
    stop us from reaching our goals. 
    Unfortunately many people are not fully aware, or accepting of their
    weaknesses and they continue to stumble because of those weaknesses.   

    Working and progressing despite my weaknesses is an
    ongoing process for me but it’s one that I’ve embraced and have learned to live

  • Shelby Amling

    This Peter Principle is very interesting. Some might think that a smart employee can work against this law of your strengths lifting you hile your weaknesses weigh you down by being an active learner and hungry for your career. If you do this your career would look a lot different because you should have found a way to make your weaknesses play for your benefit. 

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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.