By Wilma Bedford
There’s a certain type of person in the workplace who often carries a loathsome reputation: the colleague who succeeds in big ways despite not being all that good at his or her job. These people have “failed upwards”, meaning they’ve attained undue success, sometimes from sheer luck, or maybe thanks to a savvy networking ability or certain workplace alliances.
It is frustrating watching someone “fail upward”: landing greater jobs or higher posts even after displaying professional mediocrity or missteps. Allowing employees to fail up isn’t necessarily bad and can sometimes yield talented, resilient leaders. However, experts say that it is the significant gap between those who are allowed to fail without penalty on the way up – and those (more talented) who never get that chance.
Plenty of people get promoted or win awards while the hard work of their colleagues goes unrecognized. This can be due to various factors.
Culture matching – The boss and the worker share a trait, belief system or identity. Similarities in race, gender, self-presentation and personal experiences can increase a worker’s chances of success. Research published in the American Sociological Review says “cultural matching” can have a significant effect on applicants’ evaluations and “often outweigh concerns about absolute productivity”.
Nepotism – Appointing a family member do a senior post regardless of the fact that he or she has delivered no proof of competence, relevant experience or talent and has no successful track record (if any), also comes into play in some scenarios.
Overconfidence – Certain personality types tend to be blind to their own incompetence, a kind of cognitive bias researched by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, and known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They tested university students’ logical thinking skills, knowledge of English grammar and sense of humour, and then asked the students how well, or badly, they think they did. All three tests supported their hunch: the students who performed among the worst had no idea how bad they truly were. “On average they were only outperforming 10 to 15 per cent of the people in our sample, but they thought they were outperforming 60 per cent. They were almost as confident as the people at the top,” says Dunning.
This phenomenon demonstrates that not only are the incompetent bad at the task at hand, they’re so bad that they’re blind to their own ineptitude. As a result they enjoy an inflated sense of their own abilities and tackle tasks in a blissful state of overconfidence.
Dunning also notes that confidence has its place. “There are situations in which even unrealistic confidence is good, and situations in which unrealistic confidence is very, very bad,” he says. “You need to know where confidence works, and where it works against you.”
Charisma – Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, describes the typical charismatic leader as someone who articulates an ideological vision, and tends to talk about distant goals more than near-term goals because they don’t have anything concrete to offer. Yet people are invariably attracted to the person who’s confident, slightly aggressive and has a vision of what they’re supposed to be doing and how to implement it,” he says.
In politics, it’s well documented that we gravitate towards confident, charismatic leaders. “People take confidence as a prime indicator of competence,” says Dunning. Psychologists studying influence often talk about competence cues. These are signs that the person in front of us knows what he or she is talking about, such as speaking opinions loudly and without hesitation.
A charismatic leader will make us feel that we’re in safe hands during a time of crisis. Social and political crises can make us feel distressed, anxious and hopeless, so it’s understandable that in those situations we are drawn to leaders who promise to deliver better times. In a “charisma-conducive environment”, as Van der Linden calls it, we’re much more susceptible to charismatic leaders offering simple solutions.
Being visible – To be noticeably mediocre in a job with considerable public exposure is a mixed blessing. You were mediocre. But you were noticed! There is a bias toward favouring mediocre incumbents in professions where performance on the job is too a large extent publicly observable. In some industries, career development appears to be the result of the self-perpetuating power of publicity rather than the logical result of clearly earned success.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at Columbia University in New York City, states that “we started focusing so much on style, extraversion, assertiveness, lean in, be confident, brand yourself, make eye contact, body language, that we forgot to focus on substance.”
Once an individual is promoted, he or she becomes more visible to management, recruiters and other leaders; experience on a resumé begins to hold more value than actual performance outcome. And perhaps most importantly, once an employee is promoted, bosses become invested in that person’s success because it becomes a reflection of their own judgement. Failures are downplayed and losses are spun into wins. “It’s very easy to remain strategically ignorant about our mistakes,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.
As people continue to move up, he continues, we’re conditioned to believe that their positions are the result of merit – and rarely ask questions about how they got there.
The Peter Principle, by Laurence J. Peter, published nearly half-a-century ago, was guided by the principle that every person rises to the level of his own incompetence. This means that when you’re great at something, you might get rewarded with a promotion … into something you’re terrible at. Having been a great follower, you might not turn out to be a great leader. You will not get fired because either the people who are supposed to judge you have reached their own level of incompetence, or the people who promoted you are wary of being criticised for their lack of good judgement.
Due to your output, which was visible to everyone, you have been promoted and have now reached your level of incompetence. The result is no output from you, but your input – how early you arrive each morning, your pleasant demeanour – will keep you safe.
Finally, according to Peter, you have to decide whether you want to rush toward the oblivion of Final Placement (it does have its share of perks and benefits, after all). Or you have to decide whether you want to forestall it as long as you can.
If man is going to rescue himself from a future intolerable existence, he must first see where his unmindful escalation is leading him. He must examine his objectives and see that true progress is achieved through moving forward to a better way of life, rather than upward to total life incompetence.
Incompetence Rains, Er, Reigns: What the Peter Principle means today.
Rob Asghar. 14 Aug. 2014.
Failing upwards: how charismatic leaders fail their way to success.
Helen Glenny. 11 March 2019.
Failing up: Why Mediocre Workers Keep Getting Promoted.
Derek Thompson. 23 Feb. 2012.
Failing up: Why some climb the ladder despite mediocrity.
Zulekha Nathoo. 4 March 2021.