The Peter Principle is a notion that’s come up time and again during office life. Supposedly a universal theme, I decided to do a little investigation into who this so called ‘Peter’ was and what his particular principle was all about. The first surprise I came across when I located the book from where the principle first came from was how old it was. 

The Peter Principle

Written originally in 1969, in Canada, Raymond Hull collaborated with Dr Laurence J. Peter to summarise some of Peter’s research on management phenomena. The second surprise, was that it was funny (funny despite being old!). It was always intended to be satire and that certainly comes across in a way that makes you chuckle to yourself as you remember a time when you’ve witnessed some of the amusing examples used to illustrate the arguments. For something so old, it still seems to be scarily relevant today. So what is the Peter Principle? Quite simply it is:

“People in 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.”

Describing themselves as ‘hierarchiologists’ the co-authors run through many examples of the manifestation of the principle and how one recognises when they are observing the principle, i.e. when they see that someone has hit their level of incompetence. The book starts with a funny passage about first discovering the ubiquitous nature of incompetence. Hull describes becoming a teacher, discovering everyone around him didn’t know what they were doing or were committing many mistakes. Suspecting it was the school that was the problem, he decided to apply somewhere else:

“I filled out all the special forms, enclosed the required documents and complied willingly with all the red tape. Several weeks later, back came my application and all the documents! No, there was nothing wrong with my credentials; the forms were correctly filled out; an official department stamp showed that they had been received in good order. But an accompanying letter said, “The new regulations require that such forms cannot be accepted by the Department of Education unless they have been registered at the Post Office to ensure safe delivery. Will you please remail the forms to the Department, making sure to register them this time?” I began to suspect that the local school system did not have the monopoly on incompetence…” 

Due to its age, I suspect some of the ideas were more novel at the time, but unsurprisingly there is very little ground on there that hasn’t been gone over 1,000 times since. The advantages of networking and building connections within the workplace to help raise your profile are brought up in the book which of course are highly relevant today. Though they are called ‘Pull’ factors (as opposed to ‘Push’ factors where you drive forward recognition yourself). The Pull is more compelling as it involves others talking about the value you contribute.

The book definitely is a product of its time with many passages that would (thankfully) not be acceptable today, such as the following that describes ’Substitution’ – the things people do in absence of competence:

“However, in domestic hierarchies, it is exceedingly common at the housewives’ level. Many a woman who has reached her level of incompetence as a wife and/or mother achieves a happy, successful Substitution by devoting her time and energy to Utter Irrelevance and leaving husband and children to look after themselves. ”

Heaven forbid! The book is, like a lot of books on management, a long version of an article. It uses many examples to explain fairly simple concepts so it does not really need to be so long (and it’s only about 170 pages), but as it’s an easy read and quite amusing it doesn’t take too long to finish. 

For all of its satire, it does point out some workplace truths that even exist today. But really the world of work today is slightly more nuanced and grey than it was back then or at least as much as the book makes out. These days we know there are many facets to ‘being senior’ and to leadership and that some people are more well suited to some aspects of them than others. Not only does the book seem slightly reductionist in its view that if you’re a good ‘doer’ you may not be good at, or want to be involved in managing teams or more strategic thought, which seems an unfair way of looking at things. As if one would only belong in one box or another. It puts forward no notion that one could improve certain qualities of which they are deficient and seems to suggest that once you have reached your level of incompetence there is nowhere to go and so you must just try to stay just below it. Even if someone did recognise this in themselves which the authors acknowledge is unlikely, I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for most. It’s definitely earned it’s place in the everyday vocabulary of the workplace but I don’t believe people should take it to mean that their position is the end of the road and there is nothing more for them to give. 

On a slightly separate but related note, for a more nuanced view of how to develop leadership qualities, I find this Harvard Business Review article from back in 2012 more helpful. It was actually written by Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days (see below). Whilst the The Peter Principle focuses on highly localised dynamics and interactions (mainly Boss and Work) the article focuses more on how important transitioning from a specialist to a generalist (‘a bricklayer to an architect’) can be when moving to a leadership position and the role of the business in its development of leadership:

“One of the paradoxes of leadership development is that people earn promotions to senior functional levels predominantly by being good at blocking and tackling, but employees with strategic talent may struggle at lower levels because they focus less on the details. Darwinian forces can winnow strategic thinkers out of the developmental pipeline too soon if companies don’t adopt explicit policies to identify and to some degree protect them in their early careers.”