Skip to content

The Peter Principle

May 22, 2014

The Peter Principle / Why things always go wrong by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull © 1969 by William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Did you ever have something that seemed simple get so screwed up?  And did you end up as perplexed as you can be about how it got so far off track?  So did Dr. Peter.  This book is the result of his careful examination of the human race’s foundering in a morass of occupational, academic, and administrative inefficiency.

People who perform well get promotions, and keep getting promotions, until they no longer perform well, where they then they remain indefinitely.  Therefore, they rise to their level of incompetence.  In time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties.

In reality, you will not find an organization in which every employee has reached their level of incompetence.  Accordingly, work is therefore accomplished only by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.  And this is usually those at the bottom, or the less experienced.

Having stated his dictum, Dr. Peter attempts to disprove it for the skeptical, and successfully fails to so do.  One such apparent exception is where someone who is hopelessly incompetent gets kicked upstairs.  Dr. Peter points out that a close look at this will show that he wasn’t promoted, but was merely moved from one unproductive position to another.  The reasons for this are likewise completely logical.  His boss (who is equally incompetent for his job) moved him upstairs so he can camouflage the ill-success of the original promotion; or does so to encourage staff morale by making the other workers think that if that dummy can get a promotion, so can they; or he was promoted to maintain the hierarchy and also keep him quiet and out of a competitive hierarchy.

Competency of an employee is determined not by outsiders, but by his superior in the hierarchy.  Superiors not yet at their level of incompetency usually will evaluate their subordinates in terms of useful performance, and output.  Superiors at their level of incompetence will rate subordinates in terms of adherence to institutional values, i.e. whether the behavior supports the rules, rituals and status quo of the organization.   Is the employee prompt, neat, courteous to his or her superiors, follow internal memo procedures, or contribute to a smooth running of the office?  In short, input is evaluated and rewarded, not output.

In fact, in many organizations subscribing (and succumbing) to the Peter Principle, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.  Ordinary incompetence is not a cause for dismissal; it just means the promotions have ended.  Super-competency, on the other hand, often leads to dismissal because it disrupts the hierarchy.

For those who are anxious to reach their level of incompetence sooner, rather than later, Dr. Peter gives the rules for acquiring a patron within the organization that will speed you along the way, and make the trip a little less bumpy.  He also tells how employees who prove to be good at following orders get promoted to a position where they get to give the orders.  Good followers usually don’t make good order’ers.  In fact many recognized business leaders have at one time early in their careers, been fired for not following orders too well.

What of the employee who recognizes the Peter Principle, who loves his or her job, and likes the lack of responsibility over others that he or she judges to be incompetent who repetitiously refuses promotions?  Unless he or she is single and living well within their means, or married and working after hours at a home based business owned by their spouse, they will be considered somewhat strange by their families and co-workers.  They also would subject themselves to extreme nagging by their spouse, and their children would lose initiative or their desire to excel and succeed.  No, it is not easy to refuse a promotion.

What of the boss who is insightful enough to recognize the Peter Principle, and refuses to promote someone to their level of incompetence?  Chances are they are doing themselves, their organization and their subordinate a great favor.  However, this will usually lead to dissatisfaction by the subordinate and perhaps to a slacking off since they feel that no matter how good they do they will not get a promotion.

There is no easy answer, but it is probably better to stop the promotions before the level of incompetence is reached than after.  Whatever you do, it is done much easier if you can understand and subscribe to the Peter Principle.

The one big takeaway is that since in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence, you should recognize this and act to circumvent it as much as possible.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: