By Sonya Clark
In the satirical book The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (1969), Peter coins a new phrase “The Peter Principle,” as his encompassing theory about incompetence in workplaces. Attempting to encapsulate the phenomena of incompetence often found in organizations, this rather tongue-and-cheek bestseller denotes numerous recognizable examples in workplaces, including those in politics and education.
Arguably, this clever novel has merit in management research and can be considered an accurate theoretical characterization of what happens in the workplace. As such, its premise is as applicable in today’s workplace just as it was in the late 1960s when the book was first penned. The Peter Principle makes several bold statements regarding the state of the workplace, but among the most controversial and heatedly debated are the ideas that every employee will eventually reach her own level of incompetence and all positions within an organization will eventually be filled with an incompetent employee.
The authors stated on page 4 of the book that incompetence is a universal phenomenon that can be found anywhere, in any type of organization: “We see indecisive politicians posing as resolute statesmen and the ‘authoritative source’ who blames his misinformation on ‘situational imponderables.’ Limitless are the public servants who are indolent and insolent; military commanders whose behavioral timidity belies their dreadnaught rhetoric, and governors whose innate servility prevents their actually governing. In our sophistication, we virtually shrug aside the immoral cleric, corrupt judge, incoherent attorney, author who cannot write, and English teacher who cannot spell. At universities we see proclamations authored by administrators whose own office communications are hopelessly muddled; and droning lectures from inaudible or incomprehensible instructors.”
The authors also asserted that although people rise through the ranks of their organizations by various means including being pushed or pulled by circumstances, or through the strategic help of well-connected players inside the organization, ultimately the ability to be promoted relies on the individual’s competence at the current level. The more the employee exhibits competency in his position, the theory suggested, the more promotable the employee is for the next position in the hierarchy. But, the commonality in the Peter and Hull’s research studies seemed to be that, eventually, through the vertical rise in promotions, the employee found himself in a difficult situation; promotion from a position of competence to a position of incompetence.
At face value the Peter Principle is sound and quite logical. It supports what scholars know about management theory; if one is competent in one area, it does not mean that he will be competent at a higher level. The theory predicts that eventually and depending on the amount of rungs in the ladder or levels in the organization’s hierarchy, an employee can reach the point where he ceases to be productive and successful, because he will have gotten in over his head. According to Raymond and Hull, “Many of them [employees], to be sure, may win a promotion or two, moving from one level of competence to a higher level of competence. But competence in that new position qualifies them for still another promotion. For each individual, for you, for me, the final promotion is from a level of competence to a level of incompetence.”
Research shows that this can happen, but how does it happen?
In simple illustration: A competent student may become a popular teacher, and then rise to become a department head, and then an assistant principal. He has his eyes set on a superintendent post, but what if he has never dealt directly in politics or seemed to lack the charisma for superintendent work? Or, what happens if the employee has no real ability to process paperwork correctly or in a timely manner? According to the principle, this employee might be unable to be promoted and rendered no longer able to rise to the next level―his incompetence for the new position would fulfill the principle.
Whether one believes The Peter Principle is adept at explaining incompetence in the workplace or not, most will agree that incompetence is present in most companies. In accepting this theory, the reader also must believe the idea that the principle, unfortunately, will happen to anyone―even the reader. Controversially, according to the authors, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”
Which then begs the question: Who is doing the work? According to Peter and Hull, it is the employees who have not reached their level of incompetence who are accomplishing the work in the institution. An ever rising, vertical hierarchy, as described in Raymond and Hull’s newly discovered science of “hierarchiology” is constructed as the organization creates new positions for employees to accomplish neglected organizational tasks and goals, and to even provide positions to cloak unproductive employees until they retire or exit. This insures the hierarchy remains intact and protected.
Building an oppositional case
“Incompetencies of The Peter Principle,” a September1971 Training & Development Journal article by Paul W. Cummings, sought to discredit the theory of The Peter Principle. His article addressed the theory from a skewed perspective, and rather than proving his point, it solidified the principle’s existence. The author’s efforts to refute The Peter Principle supported some of the ideas expressed by Raymond and Hull. Rather than rejecting the theory, it might have been more productive for Cummings to use it to identify the existence of systematic incompetence in some workplaces. Contrary to his assertions, The Peter Principle served to identify the phenomena in organizations and hierarchical structures; providing an umbrella description for the existence of unproductive behaviors and how incompetence permeates a workplace. The Peter Principle does not cause the existence of the phenomenon.
Cummings refutes the absolutism of the book’s premise that all employees will reach his level of incompetence, and called book’s statements about the pervasiveness of incompetence “illogical.” He wrote, “Such an all pervasive statement, I for one cannot accept.” Cummings stated, “My own experiences and job role playing in such organized industrial work groups as industrial engineering, engineering, production foreman, personnel supervisor and training manager, as well as a sociology instructor have led me to believe that the authors are either naïve in their exposure to human relations in industry, or they have unknowingly surrounded themselves with true incompetent personnel in their lifetimes and have assumed that all people who work are typical of their fictitious case histories. ”
“Three directions of thought” are provided in Cummings’ arguments. The first is that the Peter Principle subtly affects its readers by creating a “tendency to mesmerize your thought processes in three distinct manners.” According to Cummings, readers will have a tendency to read the book, then to identify people according to the characteristics and labels the book describes. Perhaps, his allegation that readers will identify others is accurate, because the book does give a label to people with characteristics that fit primly with the principle because these people do exist. This gives way to the old adage, if a tree falls in the forest … and so on.
Cummings stated that when he applied the principle to his own work life, he was reminiscent of a past supervisor who never advanced beyond his present stage of superintendent of a personnel services department. Cummings believes that if he applied the principle to this person then it would suggest that this supervisor had reached his level of incompetency.
Assuming other factors, such as politics, are not the cause of his lack of vertical movement, it might be because he has reached his level of incompetence and is no longer promotable in this hierarchy. However, the principle does make allowances for this, directing the reader who finds himself in this position to seek another rung in the organization’s ladder, another department perhaps, for which he can become promotable again. Cummings describes this “incompetency” as a deceit―bringing upon himself to explain away the lack of upward mobility― by writing, “This type of literary hypnosis may temporarily satisfy my injured and bruised ego as a result of being dismissed by this gentleman. But if carried to extremes I may then try to rationalize my dismissal in my previous job on the fact that my former superior had reached his level of incompetency. It’s a self-deceiving poor elixir that these modern medicine men are dispensing to the reading public, because in reality, perhaps I was the one who had reached my level of incompetency.”
Contrary to Cummings’ statement about the principle soothing a bruised ego, it may be the impetus a dismissed employee needs to self-reflect. If the principle gives insight, even anecdotal, into what might have happened, including the prospect that, indeed, the dismissed employee did reach his level of incompetence or suffered under the leadership of an incompetent supervisor, using this theory gives the employee the ability to re-evaluate and to revise his strategy for moving into a new position.
A second direction of thought stated by Cummings is that because bad experiences are common in the workplace, many people will agree that their bosses have reached their level of incompetence, but when considering the principle, they are surprised when their boss has been promoted and they can become their bosses replacement. Again, Cummings provides anecdotes to support the principle rather than to dispute it as he attempted.
Cummings’ third direction states that as the reader lowers his rational defenses and accepts the premises of the principle, he begins to “sacrifice logical reasoning” and will abandon the real for more instances of seeing “imaginary characters.”
To support this argument, Peter and Hull wrote, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” Again, Cummings refutes the use of the word “every” in the principle, saying the word “every” discounts training an employee has had, rendering it all ineffective. However, the principle does seem to apply to everyone. Skills are continuously developed through exposure and training. The use of the word “every” in Peter and Hull is justified because it means that all posts can be filled by an employee who has reached his level of incompetence. Therefore, the employee is perceived as no longer promotable because he has not gained new skills or improved skills necessary for the position.
Accepting the principle on its merits
In a April 1971 Training & Development Journal article titled, “The Peter What?,” Joe D. Batten accepted the work as a “whimsical and titillating book” and offered his work “for the obsolete and near obsolete person who wants a reassuring palliative for the expedient batch of obsolete practices for which he has opted.” His interpretation implies that the book allows people to succumb to self-limiting beliefs because the principle is inevitable. Battan wrote that the principle let’s people “off the hook of work, effort, resilience, building, confrontation, and above all, change.” He offered his own theory as a counter to incompetence called the Batten Principle, which places full responsibility on the employee. But, suspending disbelief and assuming the theory of The Peter Principle is a real phenomenon, employees should think very carefully before accepting a promotion.
Robert Half (1993), who believes the principle actually happened to him when he accepted a job that he later felt was beyond his abilities, advised other employees in his Management Accounting article “I Reached My Peter Principle Level. What Do I Do?” that although it may be a natural human response for an employee to accept a promotion, the greater responsibility and the financial gain it might present, an employee’s ability to evaluate his own work and to avoid taking a promotion that they may not be prepared for, shows wisdom and maturity.
However, according to Half, “The immediate, albeit premature, gratification that comes from moving ahead too fast and too far is often negated by the harsh reality that eventually sets in when the gratification turns into frustration and failure.” When is an employee ready to be promoted is a question that, according to Half, the employee must answer for herself. It is important for the employee to recognize deficient areas and to make an effort to strengthen those deficiencies before considering accepting a promotion.