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The Peter Principle

The Peter principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”: an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. The concept was elucidated in the book The Peter Principle (William Morrow and Company, 1969) by Dr Peter and Raymond Hull.

Peter and Hull intended the book to be satire,[1] but it became popular as it was seen to make a serious point about the shortcomings of how people are promoted within hierarchical organizations. Hull wrote the text, based on Peter’s research. The Peter principle has been the subject of much subsequent commentary and research.

The Peter principle states that a person who is competent at their job will earn promotion to a more senior position which requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for their new role, then they will be incompetent at their new level, and so they will not be promoted again. But if they are competent at their new role, then they will be promoted again, and they will continue to be promoted until they eventually reach a level at which they are incompetent. Being incompetent, they do not qualify to be promoted again, and so remain stuck at that final level for the rest of their career (termed “Final Placement” or “Peter’s Plateau”). This outcome is inevitable, given enough time and assuming that there are enough positions in the hierarchy to which competent employees may be promoted.[2] The “Peter Principle” is therefore expressed as: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”[3] This leads to Peter’s Corollary: “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”[4] Hull calls the study of how hierarchies work “hierarchiology.”[5]

In chapters 1 and 2, Peter and Hull give various examples of the Peter principle in action. In each case, the higher position required skills which were not required at the level immediately below. For example, a competent school teacher may make a competent assistant principal, but then go on to be an incompetent principal. The teacher was competent at educating children, and as assistant principal he was good at dealing with parents and other teachers, but as principal he was poor at maintaining good relations with the school board and the superintendent.[7]

In chapter 3, Peter and Hull discuss apparent exceptions to this principle and then debunk them. One of these illusory exceptions is when someone who is incompetent is still promoted anyway. They coin the phrase “percussive sublimation” for this phenomenon of being “kicked upstairs”. But it is only a pseudo-promotion: a move from one unproductive position to another. This improves staff morale, as other employees believe that they too can be promoted again.[8] Another pseudo-promotion is the “lateral arabesque”, when a person is moved out of the way and given a longer job title.[9]

While incompetence is merely a barrier to further promotion, super-incompetence is grounds for dismissal. So is super-competence. In both cases “they tend to disrupt the hierarchy.”[10] One example of a super-competent employee is a teacher of children with special needs who was so effective at educating them that after a year they exceeded all expectations at reading and arithmetic, but the teacher was still fired because he had neglected to devote enough time to bead-stringing and finger-painting.[11]

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the methods of achieving promotion: “Push” and “Pull.” Push means the employee’s own efforts, such as working hard and taking self-improvement courses. This is usually not very effective, because of the Seniority Factor: the next level up is often fully occupied, blocking the path to promotion.[12] Pull is far more effective, and refers to accelerated promotion brought about by the efforts of an employee’s mentors or patrons.[13]

Chapter 6 explains why “good followers do not become good leaders.”[14] In chapter 7, Peter and Hull describe the effect of the Peter Principle in politics and government. Chapter 8, entitled “Hints and Foreshadowings”, discusses the work of earlier writers on the subject of incompetence, such as Sigmund FreudKarl Marx and Alexander Pope.

Chapter 9 explains that once employees have reached their level of incompetence, they always lack insight into their situation. Peter and Hull go on to explain why aptitude tests do not work and are actually counter-productive.[15] Finally, they describe “Summit Competence”: when someone reaches the highest level in their organisation and yet is still competent at that level. This is only because there were not enough ranks in the hierarchy, or because they did not have time to reach a level of incompetence. Such people often seek a level of incompetence in another hierarchy. For example, Socrates was an outstanding teacher but a terrible defence attorney. This is known as “Compulsive Incompetence.”[16]

Chapter 10 explains why trying to assist an incompetent employee by promoting another employee to act as his assistant does not work. “Incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence.”[17]

Chapters 11 and 12 describe the various medical and psychological manifestations of stress which may result when someone reaches his level of incompetence, as well as other symptoms such as certain characteristic habits of speech or behaviour.

Chapter 13 considers whether it is possible for an employee who has reached his level of incompetence to be happy and healthy once he gets there. The answer is no, if he realises his true situation, and yes if he does not.[18]

In chapter 14 various ways of avoiding promotion to the final level are described. Attempting to refuse an offered promotion is ill-advised, and is only practicable if the employee is not married and has no one else to answer to. Generally it is better to avoid being considered for promotion in the first place, by pretending to be incompetent while one is actually still employed at a level of competence. This is “Creative Incompetence,” and several examples of successful techniques are given. It works best if the chosen field of incompetence does not actually impair one’s work.[19]

The concluding chapter applies Peter’s Principle to the entire human species at an evolutionary level, and asks whether humanity can survive in the long run, or will become extinct upon reaching its level of incompetence as technology advances.

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