The Peter Principle I

Ever become completely frustrated at the incompetence of your boss?  Or with management above them?  How about frustration with co-workers?  And then wonder why nothing ever changes?  Welcome to the real world and one huge Fundamental Principle, #3 – The Peter Principle.  It is so fundamental that it has spawned such cultural icons as Dilbert, The Office, Office Space, Parks & Recreation, and no doubt your own personal experiences.

When I first learned of the Peter Principle I was too young to fully understand and appreciate its implications.  The book that Dr. Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote in 1969, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, was a humorous proposal of the concept that

In any hierarchical organization, people will eventually be promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their level of incompetence).

Needless to say, it became a best seller then, and such a timeless lesson that it was reprinted for its 40th anniversary.

I knew I would have to begin this blog with The Peter Principle as a Fundamental Principle, but as I reviewed its contents in search for leads to any additional Fundamental Principles that could supplement my own, I realized that I had hit the mother lode.  You must read this book.  In it there are enough subtle observations and pointers that I am going to be occupied for weeks (which at this point in the blog is a good thing).

So, why begin with The Peter Principle?  Because it leads to the questions I have been asking myself over the years:

-The least of these is the question “What do I do when my boss is incompetent?” One discovers the lowest level of organizational response when one looks around and first notices that everyone else is carrying the extra burden of the boss’s incompetence.  That is not a cure but more a mode of survival, which can sometimes be quite entertaining.  I will leave you to peruse The Peter Principle for more detailed and entertaining discussions;

-A more important reason for most of us would be the question “How do I avoid this happening to me?”  This is definitely in the survival mode, but has the added merit of a proactive look to prevention, albeit self-serving.  There are many ideas and suggestions that I will collect and post here;

-And my really favorite reason as a manager and leader is the question that apparently, as you will see, no one ever asks, “How can I know if the person I am now considering for promotion will suddenly become incompetent?” This is the question that should be asked, the one that directly focuses on prevention for the good of the organization.  That there aren’t enough leaders and managers who are able to answer this question is probably ample evidence for the self-fulfilling nature of The Peter Principle itself.  The answers to this last question, and the additional Fundamental Principles that evolve from The Peter Principle, are as equally relevant to this question as to the previous one about your survival.  If you learn what behaviors to look for in others, you’ll be more able (we hope) to identify, eliminate and prevent them in yourself.

Let me finish this entry with just one of the additional Fundamental Principles lurking within The Peter Principle.  When The Peter Principle states that a person will eventually be promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent, we typically understand that they are no longer adding value to the organization.  However, The Peter Principle also implies that their earlier promotions must have been based upon competence, and thus to positions in which they indeed added value. And therein lies our first hidden Fundamental Principle (actually, it is not THE first, but as I said, Let Us Begin in the Middle):

Added Value: You can and are supposed to add value to your chosen endeavors.  Make it a conscious effort to know what that is. Always.

Do you know what your added value(s) is(are)?


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 03: The Peter Principle and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Peter Principle I

  1. Carol says:

    I think I’m going to like this alot! (not the least of which is the wonderful picture and the great tag line).


  2. Marie says:

    Working with volunteers more than paid staff, I am constantly trying to figure out how to pull value out of my workers in ways that will allow them to function best while not discouraging their ambition and commitment. It’s such a fine line to walk to tell someone “you suck at this so I’m going to give you something simpler to do so that you thrive”. Especially with volunteers, finding ways to help them at the most value is difficult, but when it works it does work well.


    • jwedmonds says:

      Thank you, Marie. I’ve been collecting some thoughts focussed on volunteers but I still need to set a few foundation blocks in place first. Please let me know if you have other topics or thoughts.


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