In 1969 Lawrence J Peter and Lawrence Hull published their humorous work, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. As Wikipedia describes it, "They suggest that people will tend to be promoted until they reach their ‘position of maximum incompetence’". And since that time, most people have used the term "The Peter Principle" to refer to people displaying their exposed incompetence upon being promoted beyond their abilities.

But what if that theory only reflects the truth for a portion of the "incompetents," and the rest — and I would guess the majority — have simply but dramatically been promoted beyond their unconscious permission to rise above their previous station, and beyond the people they have previously worked shoulder-to-shoulder with?

What if they suffer from what we call "The Fear of Being Fabulous"? If that’s the case, then it’s not incompetence at issue. Not at all. It’s their unconscious Forbiddance acting up, preventing them from rising through the ranks beyond where they were unconsciously permitted to display their excellence.

Unconscious Allegiance or Loyalty

Suppose a very gifted and intelligent individual grew up in a family, a religion, a culture that preached "modesty," "humility," and danger in standing out. In the young person’s mind, especially before the age of seven when the brain can finally begin to make personal evaluations, these messages are received and stored in the unconscious mind as "The Truth."

Then, without awareness of having integrated these early "truths," that individual will likely do well in school and in the workplace — up to a point. As long as they can quietly perform what’s expected, they are comfortable.

But what happens when their manager or boss sees their greater potential and promotes them to a quite visible position where "modesty," "humility," and not standing out are impossible?

It may look like the "maximum incompetence" version of "The Peter Principle" as that individual starts to decline in professional execution, strategic thinking, timely planning, you name it. But they will not be exhibiting incompetence, rather they will be attempting to get the job done within the bounds of their unconscious allegiance or loyalty to what they learned way early on about the rules of good and expected behavior that are now long standing residents of their unconscious.

Unconscious Forbiddance

Early unconscious programming will always triumph over conscious beliefs, intentions, and commitments as long as they remain unconscious, buried and out of awareness. Why? Because they are primitive elements of our identity, absorbed long before we could evaluate them. And they came to us from and through the people we were dependent upon for all forms of basic nurturance. So our need to love them—whoever our caretakers were—as basic as it was in baby and toddler time, continually reinforced the "correctness" of what we were absorbing.

In our sixth book, What Really Killed Whitney Houston, we explore the massive Unconscious Forbiddance that prevented Whitney from being able to live the success she achieved, and how that took her down, down, down into the self-destruction that finally ended her life. But she is far from alone. Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson are just a few of the huge stars whose Unconscious Forbiddance prevented them from growing into an identity of super star and instead prompted self-destruction.

None of these people were examples of achieving "maximum incompetence." Quite the contrary. They aced the test for competence as performers, money makers, stars in the world. But they failed the test of growing into their success and owning it through and through.

People You Work With

So when you have people working with or for you that appear to become less competent upon being promoted or given more visible responsibility, consider the strong possibility that they are struggling with unconscious forbiddances that show up as holdbacks and roadblocks perhaps in the forms of procrastination, acting out anxious confusion, behaving in a distracting manner like fiddling with their cell phone at staff meetings, talking and laughing too loud in the break room, coming to work way late or leaving way early a lot of the time.

Do not assume incompetence, at least not immediately. Instead open a conversation about how their behavior has changed since they got promoted. Ask if they feel uncomfortable in their new role. Share any of the times you’ve had to grapple with a "growth shudder" while you worked your way through the Fear of Being Fabulous.

Author's Bio: 

Judith Sherven, PhD and her husband Jim Sniechowski, PhD have developed a penetrating perspective on people’s resistance to success, which they call The Fear of Being Fabuloustm. Recognizing the power of unconscious programming to always outweigh conscious desires, they assert that no one is ever failing—they are always succeeding. The question is, at what? To learn about how this played out in the life of Whitney Houston, check out

Currently working as consultants on retainer to LinkedIn providing executive coaching, leadership training and consulting as well as working with private clients around the world, they continually prove that when unconscious beliefs are brought to the surface, the barriers to greater success and leadership presence begin to fade away. They call it Overcoming the Fear of Being Fabulous