3 min read
Leadership Development

It’s tragically common for people in organizations to be promoted up the hierarchy to their “level of incompetence,” a concept in management known as the Peter Principle. They are promoted because they did well in their previous job, not based on their potential to meet the needs of the new position into which they are placed, even when the new role requires a wholly different set of skills. Moreover, there’s often no leadership development training for the new skills they need to learn to succeed in their new position. 

This combination of poor promotion practices and lack of training stem largely from a dangerous judgment error known as the curse of knowledge, referring to the fact that when we learn something, we face great difficulty in relating to someone who doesn’t know it. Once we gain a set of skills, such as in managing others, we tend to forget what it feels like to lack these abilities; once we acquire relevant knowledge, such as the jargon of our profession, we tend to use it to speak to those who don’t know this jargon, and then wonder why they fail to understand. 

As a result, we have difficulties communicating with others about our professional activities, teaching them the skills they need to learn, and collaborating with them in professional settings. 

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The curse of knowledge error comes from how our brains are wired. It represents one of the many dangerous judgment errors that scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases.

Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to address these dangerous judgment errors, whether in your professional life, your relationships, or other life areas

You need to evaluate where cognitive biases are hurting you and others in your team and organization. Then, you can use structured decision-making methods to make “good enough” daily decisions quickly; more thorough ones for moderately important choices; and an in-depth one for truly major decisions.

Such techniques will also help you implement your decisions well, and formulate truly effective long-term strategic plans. In addition, you can develop mental habits and skills to notice cognitive biases and prevent yourself from slipping into them.

Let’s get back to the cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge. A case in point: a Northeast state’s Department of Transportation faced a serious Peter Principle challenge. Staff got promoted into supervisory roles based on a combination of seniority and prior performance. Then, newly-promoted supervisors were expected to pick up the skills on the job, without training in leadership. The problem stemmed from the curse of knowledge, with most of the leaders in the department of transportation forgetting the difficulties they had in developing their own leadership skills. 

A newly-hired HR Director, coming in with an outside perspective, recognized this long-standing practice as a serious issue. She convinced the department’s leadership to develop a leadership development training program for newly-promoted supervisors. The HR Director brought in Disaster Avoidance Experts to consult on creating the leadership development program. 

We started with an opt-in pilot training program for supervisors newly-promoted from the ranks. Through focus groups and assessments of current supervisors, we identified eight core skills required for this role as compared to their previous positions, along with some relevant knowledge. 

We then created a training curriculum that conveyed these skills and knowledge, along with a mentor program teaming a new supervisor with one who had more than five years of experience. We also created a method of evaluating success, namely seeing whether the newly-promoted supervisors received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations” on their six-month performance assessment. In the past, an average 63 percent of those promoted met this requirement, providing a clear baseline by which to measure our intervention.

Out of 48 recently-promoted supervisors, 21 chose to join the pilot training program. Of these 21, a total of 17 – 83 percent – received a rating of “meeting or exceeding expectations,” much higher than the baseline. Out of the 27 supervisors who chose not to join the program, only 16 received the same rating, or 59 percent, so around the baseline. Seeing how the new training curriculum substantially boosted performance by new supervisors, the Department of Transportation leadership endorsed the HR Director’s desire to train all newly-promoted supervisors. 

I regret that such leadership development training didn’t address the manner in which the Peter Principle determined how supervisors were selected. Unfortunately, the leadership of the department wasn’t willing to discuss this issue, as it would mean challenging the union contract’s promotion guidelines. Still, at least the new supervisors had a much better chance of success due to addressing the curse of knowledge.

Key Takeaway

Organizations often fail to train newly-promoted leaders well, because experienced leaders forget about the many new skills needed for recently-promoted leaders to succeed. This problem stems from a mental blindspot known as the curse of knowledge. —> Click to tweet

Questions to Consider (please share your thoughts in the comments section)

  • Where might the curse of knowledge or the Peter Principle trip you up? How about others in your team or organization?
  • What might your organization and team gain from avoiding the curse of knowledge or the Peter Principle?
  • Can you envision what next steps might help yourself, your team, and your organization address  the curse of knowledge or the Peter Principle? Which of these steps will you take in the next week?

Image credit: Pixabay/Timusu


Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. His expertise and passion is using pragmatic business experience and cutting-edge behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience to develop the most effective and profitable decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019), The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide (2017), and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (2020). Dr. Tsipursky’s cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 400 articles and 350 interviews in Fast Company, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inc. Magazine, and elsewhere.

His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training experience as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. Its hundreds of clients, mid-size and large companies and nonprofits, span North America, Europe, and Australia, and include Aflac, IBM, Honda, Wells Fargo, and the World Wildlife Fund. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist with over 15 years in academia, including 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University. He published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals such as Behavior and Social Issues and Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

He lives in Columbus, OH, and to avoid disaster in his personal life makes sure to spend ample time with his wife. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook, YouTube, RSS, and LinkedIn. Most importantly, help yourself avoid disasters and maximize success, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace, by signing up for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.