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The Peter Principle

May 4, 2012

Hi, here is another of my posts from over at Brodard. I am gradually copying them here but I am going very slowly because I am inherently lazy and a natural-born procrastinator.

Behind every cubicle divider, the door of every hallway office, and the pigeon holes of every post room can be heard the sound of gnashing teeth, cracked knuckles and hissed asides. Everyone (from the top to the bottom) has, at one time or another, uttered the refrain: “You know what? My boss is a total idiot…”

Is there any truth in this? Is it true that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and says ‘quack‘ then it must – surely – be a duck?

Well, we can all exhale a collective sigh of relief because -– as Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull argued in their 1969 book –  your boss probably is an idiot and is there because of “The Peter Principle”.

The Peter Principle postulates that within large organisations people get promoted because they are competent – sometimes extremely competent – at their current position but then get promoted to a position for which they have no competence. They reach what the authors famously called their “level of incompetence”!

For example, an extremely competent, hard working lawyer (let’s call him “Adam”), is deemed so effective and hard working that he is promoted to manage a department made up only of lawyers – despite having shown no competence at managing a legal department. But, an internal promotion is good for departmental morale, an easier transition and more cost effective. The previously hard working, competent lawyer – having secured his promotion – takes his ‘foot off the gas’ and settles into a steady period of reasonable incompetence. He can’t be fired (and demoting him would reflect badly on his line manager) so our newly promoted incompetent, then incompetently makes incompetent decisions including promoting other incompetents.

But – jackpot! – he now mixes with the movers and the shakers and although still an incompetent manager, the previously hard working, competent lawyer gets to interact with high level management. Come pay rise time the previously hard working and competent lawyer cannot be given a pay rise without a promotion (because of the way the pay grades within his company are structured) and there is already a Head of Legal…so the movers and shakers think: ‘he’s a lawyer, he’s bright, he can adapt to anything! Let’s make him the Head of Human Resources…

[time passes, people leave, new people get hired (by Adam) and Adam copes, delegates, and postures his way to ever higher levels of pay and responsibility]

…he ran Human Resources, then was Vice President of Communications and was then director of Marketing – and he was trained as a lawyer -– so Adam would be the perfect CEO.’ 

This is how The Peter Principle works. Although the theory was originally conceived as a humorous diatribe against the sometimes ridiculous nature of corporate hierarchies, the authors discovered that they had hit a bit of a nerve. Once they let this theoretical cat out of the bag people started coming to them with real world examples of The Peter Principle theory in action. But is it true to life?

I think, like anything that touches a nerve, there is a large grain of truth in it. But is there a way to fight it? Well, yes, I think that there is a three point plan to avert disaster:

  1. Pay more without promotion Most companies like to wed increased pay to extra responsibility and a widened role profile but sometimes this is not necessarily the best way to get the most out of a good employee. Recognition for excellent work shouldn’t always require the addition of extra duties or the application of skills that the employee doesn’t have. Another idea would be to give them a grander sounding title – after all, brass name plates are not that expensive…
  2. Train them for the position There is a definite sink-or-swim mentality after someone gets a promotion; that they got there because they have displayed natural aptitude for the role. But what if that person was trained beforehand, or allowed to shadow someone in a similar position? Wouldn’t it be more effective, less risky and more efficient to train them before they take on more responsibities? You might discover they’re not ready for the extra responsibility or they might discover that they are not ready either. For a perfect example, look at what happened with Gordon Brown after Tony Blair…
  3. Remove the stigma of demotion If someone has been singled out for promotion, been trained (and has responded well) for the position but once in situ are revealed to be an Olympic swimming pool sized buffoon then there should be scope within the corporation to demote that employee without any stigma. This, I think, is an impossible dream as failure in the corporate world stays with you like that egg sandwich you ate for lunch… The trick is to not get to this stage at all.

I am sure we have all worked with our fair share of incompetents but the real trick of it, the real solution to this perceived problem is to not be one of them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 4, 2012 2:31 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by this theory, (which is a sad reflection of my life). It is so depressing, yet so true – we all rise to the level at which we become too shit to go any further. Wouldn’t it make sense to demote everyone, all at once, so we just shiifted all down one? It might cause problems at the extremes, but perhaps we could just shift the bottom layer right round and into the vacant leadership positions? I see the makings of an intriguing social experiment…

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