Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull

Peter, Laurence J., & Raymond HullThe Peter Principle.  New York: William Morrow, 1969.

It’s very likely you’ve heard the Peter Principle, or some paraphrase of it: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  It’s been around for more than 40 years (KBR doesn’t claim to review the latest books).

It’s a cynical thing to say, too.  The humorously pseudo-academic tone used by Laurence J. Peter (an actual academic) and Raymond Hull does little to soften the cynicism.  I don’t think they were trying to be sarcastic.  I think they were a little bit serious.

The Peter Principle makes sense.  Organizations promote people based on their performance in their current job.  Eventually, promotions lead a person into a job for which he is not competent.  I used to work in an organization that had almost no promotion potential except through the ranks of supervisor and managers, though almost all the employees were technical experts of one sort or another.  The talent that made employees excel on the front line had little to do with making good supervisors and managers.  Middle management mediocrity and misery was common.

Corollaries to the Peter Principle predict that misery.  Even incompetents who are too deluded to recognize it feel the stress of their shortcomings and suffer physically and mentally.

Peter and Hull demonstrate the principle and its corollaries through case studies.  They describe the cases humorously, but I suspect they have some basis in reality, especially since many come from educational institutions, Peter’s area of expertise.


They suggest a possible solution in creative incompetence.  That is, do what you do well and enjoy, but be just bad enough at something inconsequential to your work, but important to you boss, to make yourself appear incompetent for promotion.

It goes against the grain.  Bookstore shelves are full of books on getting ahead, getting a promotion, getting a better job, getting richer, and generally getting.  Peter and Hull suggest the opposite: You’ll do more good if you stick to doing what you do well.  You’ll be happier, too.  You may not be richer or more powerful, but if that costs your health and joy, is it worth it?

I think it is easier to opt out of hierarchies than it used to be, thank to advances in communication and information technology.  Even so, large organizations in both the private and public sectors are common for many good reasons and a hierarchy is an efficient way to organize.  If you don’t work for a hierarchy, you still deal with many.  The Peter Principle may help you recognize problems and deal with them with good humor and grace.  It may even help you find ways to avoid becoming part of the problem.  On the other hand, it may just cause you to pull your hair out in frustration.

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