The Peter Principle

"The Peter Principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter in which the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and "managers rise to the level of their incompetence."

Incompetence Rains, Er, Reigns: What The Peter Principle Means Today

You may think you’ve heard the Peter Principle before—something to the effect that, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

But the Peter Principle was more than an alarmingly nasty motto. It was an alarmingly nasty book—and a funny one at that, illustrating the efforts of many managers to seem productive when in fact they’re in over their heads.

Published nearly a half-century ago, the book is now a refreshing tonic for all the feel-good, impossibly Pollyannaish management wisdom being passed around.

The Peter Principle wasn’t titled in honor an incompetent manager named Pete. It was created by Laurence J. Peter, a prominent Canadian scholar of education, who noticed it, began to lecture about it, and was finally egged on to write in more detail about it. Rather than penning a scholarly tract, however, he offered up a straight-faced satirical treatment. It’s as if the book were being narrated by Leslie Nielsen circa “Airplane.”

Here are the core principles of Peter’s bungling world of management:

1. When you’re great at something, you might get rewarded with a promotion … into something you’re terrible at. A typical example, Peter said, is if you’re a great rule-follower who suddenly is placed in charge of making rules and decisions. You may well freeze up in your new role or gum up the productivity of everyone else.

2. Once you’re promoted to your level of incompetence, you probably won’t get fired and replaced with someone more competent. Instead, others will work around you. Why aren’t you fired? Perhaps because you probably know too much about your boss’ business to be booted out too casually. Or because people have sympathy for you because you’re working so many hours. Or because the people who are supposed to judge you have reached their own level of incompetence, and damned if they’re able to realize how unproductive you are. So you now have reached the ominously termed station called “Final Placement.”

3. When you’re competent, even a dummy can see your output. And you’re being rewarded for that output. But once you’re reached incompetence, there’s little or no output from you. At this point, you’ll be judged by your input—by how early you arrive at the office, by how cheerful you are, by how you’re a good citizen. Rest assured, incompetence is usually not enough to get you fired; only “super-incompetence” is enough to get you fired. And, ironically, “super-competence” will get you fired too, because now you’re just making everyone else look bad. As Peter said, the hierarchy must be protected at all costs.

4. Incompetence is perhaps inevitable. So you have to decide whether you want to rush toward the oblivion of Final Placement (it does have its share of perks and benefits, after all). Or you have to decide whether you want to forestall it as long as you can.

5. If you do decide to rush into a sterile future, Peter said you need to exercise the power of “pull”—by attaching yourself to superiors who can help pull you up quickly. And he offered some unnervingly witty advice on how to manipulate them into a promotion.

6. If you’re smart enough to realize that you don’t want to be pulled up the ladder to career limbo, you’ll find a happy place where you can be productive and useful, and you’ll fight like hell to avoid getting promoted.

You can’t just refuse promotions, Peter said. It creates too many problems. Instead, you have to incompetent fire with incompetent fire, by mastering the art of “creative incompetence.”

This magnificent, high art involves preemptively scuttling your chances for promotion. You do this by demonstrating incompetence at something irrelevant, something that won’t get you fired, but which will get you removed from the short list for upper management. Peter offered a few helpful suggestions, such as being marginally rude to the boss’ spouse at the holiday party, dressing just slightly inappropriately, or occasionally accidentally parking in the CEO’s spot.

7. Because incompetence is inevitable, we shouldn’t be trying to fire all the incompetent managers. We’d only replace them with deadwood anyway. And being a social species, we realize these people have families to feed, cars to buy and vacations to take. They’re job-creators, if you will. Peter argued that incompetent people will do the least damage to competent people’s productivity if we maintain the benign illusion that they’re useful and have a bright future.

What to Make of the Peter Principle Today

This may be making you want to scream. It seems so cynical, so hopeless. It’s actually not.

There’s a humble and light Zen wit to Laurence Peter’s philosophy. We’re human, in the end. The Tony Robbins types try to sell us the life-hacks, the superfood diets, the meditation techniques and the mantras to transfigure us from mortal to immortal. That only sets us up to fail in a different and delusional way.
If man is going to rescue himself from a future intolerable existence, he must first see where his unmindful escalation is leading him. He must examine his objectives and see that true progress is achieved through moving forward to a better way of life, rather than upward to total life incompetence.
Man must realize that improvement of the quality of experience is more important than the acquisition of useless artifacts and material possessions. He must reassess the meaning of life and decide whether he will use his intellect and technology for the preservation of the human race and the development of the humanistic characteristics of man, or whether he will continue to utilize his creative potential in escalating a super-colossal deathtrap.
Man, on occasion, has caught a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror, and not immediately recognizing himself, has begun to laugh before realizing what he was doing. It is in such moments that true progress toward understanding has occurred.


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