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People Promoted In The Peter Principle

Updated on February 15, 2013

The Peter Principle


The Peter Principle is a concept formulated by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle. The book is a clever and satirical piece of work introducing the masses to the "salutary science of hierarchiology." The theory behind the Peter Principle is that in hierarchical structures, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent. This is referred to as their level of incompetence. There, they will remain, being unable to earn further promotions but at the same time cannot get demoted. The result being that they now rest perfectly within their level of incompetence until terminated from the company or retired.

The theory of Peter Principle is receiving greater validity and attention as time progresses. Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence." Managing upward is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly "manage" superiors in order to limit the damage that they end up doing.

The Peter Principle is not a concept that strictly applies to human psychology. Interestingly enough, the concept also exists in the world of science and technology. Observed by Dr. William R. Corcoran, in his work on corrective action programs at nuclear power plants, he explained that when organizations conduct safety tests and perform quality control, they often opt for sticking with the existing technology rather than risk upgrading the technology. The argument is that it's "safer to stick with what has worked before." The irony is that by refusing to upgrade the current level of technology, the technology over time suffers from decay. This reduces the efficiency of the said technology and eventually regresses the technology to a level of incompetence. The end result being is it's much more costly due to the compound interest accumulated from lost efficiency over time and eventually once the plant stops functioning completely due to decay, a complete overhaul will be necessary, shutting down operations entirely. Many scientists now argue that it's the Peter Principle that is causing the looming energy crisis.

Solutions: Peter Principle

A method that organizations can avoid the Peter Principle effect is by having an up or out policy that requires termination of an employee who fails to attain a promotion after a certain amount of time. Even in instances where an employee can handle their current job but fail to do any better, they can still cause harm within the company, by way of preventing those beneath them with higher potential of moving up, as well as lowering morale once such employees become aware of this fact. Most militaries around the world adopt such a concept. However, in civilian labour, the idea isn't without controversy and a lot of politics. We have all heard of the word "downsizing." The problem with downsizing is that while it may make some sense at a macroeconomic level, in a micro-economic level the employee who becomes downsized often later works in a position well below his/her capabilities. The Peter Principle was severely overcompensated in such a scenario. Unlike the military, most civilian positions do not have an adequate level of education, transitional support, or pension support that can allow people to make a reasonable and manageable up or out exit strategy.

A more refined method is to refrain from promoting an employee until they show the skills and work habits needed to succeed at the next higher job. For example, the worker won't be promoted to manage others if they do not already display management abilities. Though, this process isn't as easy as it first seems. The first dilemma is that employees who do well in their current positions may resent the fact they're not being promoted, and thus morale has decreased. The second dilemma is this method does put an extreme burden on organizations for discovering people with natural managerial skills or abilities. We enter a chicken and the egg situation where often the people doing the evaluations as to what personalities, skills, and abilities for management are the same people that previously benefited from the Peter Principle. Thus they're incompetent as management and will in turn evaluate/promote the same incompetent abilities within themselves. The third dilemma is that employees who are superstars in technical skills are left behind. Often people of a strong technical ability are not wired to become managers. Some organizations recognize that technical people may be very valuable for their skills but poor managers. These organizations provide parallel career paths allowing a good technical person to acquire pay and status reserved for management in most organizations, but this is often pale by comparison.

Another method for overcoming the effects of the Peter Principle can be found in the use of contractors and freelancers (for example in the IT industry). IT contractors are selected for their relevant experience, supported by recent references, and are usually taken on for short periods (up to six months at a time, with renewals if competent). If incompetence is detected, they can be easily laid off (e.g., by simply not renewing their contract). The contractor is not a part of the hierarchy, and thus is not usually eligible for promotion. The problem with this process is often the employee (and I speak here from experience) can go months without work between contracts, suffering decay in their technical skill set, their finances, and their emotional discipline. It's important to keep your skills current in between contracts, but what people fail to realize is that when unemployed you have less time to hone your skills, not more. Much of the time being unemployed is spent looking for jobs, an activity that offers no useful skills or personal growth so to speak. Whereas if you had a job, chances are you're honing your skills at a minimum of eight hours a weekday. Another problem with the free agent method is you often have to overly bend to the laws of supply and demand at any given time. Your resume becomes a confetti of several different jobs here and there every couple of years and you haven't developed any specialized skills. This is viewed with extreme suspicion by employers, especially as you get older.

The Reverse Peter Principle

The Reverse Peter Principle was a theory invented by myself back in 2001. Whereas the Peter Principle states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence, The Reverse Peter Principle states that people enter an organization at their level of incompetence, in the hope of being promoted to their level of competence. Very rarely does such a process come to pass, for being incompetent at the bottom will prevent you from reaching the middle, let alone the top, but yet many are forced to undergo such a fool's hope.

Here are a few examples of a Reversed Peter Principle coming to play:

  1. An individual with leadership skills having to start at the bottom, where his leadership abilities may actually hurt rather than help him in such a position. His leadership skills are thus suppressed. He is deliberately starting off in a field of incompetence hoping to one day work his way up into his level of competence. Of course, very rarely does this materialize, because he is incompetent at stocking shelves, he may never get a chance to demonstrate his leadership skills in management.
  2. A person that has strong financial skills, who rather than starting off as a financial analyst, will have to work at the bottom in a customer service capacity as a bank teller. Often the analytical and technical types don't make the best people pleasers, so they tend to do poorly in customer service. Unfortunately, most entry level positions are in customer service, so such individuals don't get promoted. Often worse is such individuals can immediately get terminated due to bad reports from customers.
  3. An individual who has strong engineering skills, but has weak language skills, who may be required to do entry level jobs in a more communicative capacity. Such as customer service or writing scientific summaries for senior level staff.
  4. The classic example of starting a position doing photocopies and pouring coffee. For all we know, you may not be the best at handling an espresso or have great photocopier technical skills, but you'll have to find a way to master such a craft with a smile on your face if you want to get promoted to your level of aptitude and competence.
  5. A senior level employee who recently lost his job and now must accept a junior level position to get his foot in the door.

The Reverse Peter Principle concept truly does live up to its name. Much like a reflection in the mirror, after you're a victim of a Reverse Peter Principle, the Peter Principle proper then rears its ugly head. You couldn't get promoted up to management because you have leadership skills that make you a little too argumentative with your boss. You're stuck in a level of incompetence. Mean while, that employee who just does what he is told without asking too many questions or thinking gets the management position. He has no leadership abilities and is thus promoted to his level of incompetence. You're now both starring each other down in a web of incompetence. The result is more and more incompetence.

Solutions: Reverse Peter Principle

I believe governments around the world are aware of the Reverse Peter Principle. To alleviate this concern, governments seem to believe that greater education is in order. The argument is that through greater educational attainment that can count as the equivalent of work experience, employers are less likely to put someone in a reverse Peter Principle scenario. Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth and is in fact the opposite. Hyper inflating education only exasperates the Reverse Peter Principle process. For example, you won't become VP of the company because you achieved a double PHD, but you may become VP of the company had you worked there twelve years instead. Education isn't a solution to the Reverse Peter Principle.

Another textbook solution to the Reverse Peter Principle is simply "sucking it up" and "working your way up." Unfortunately, there may have been a time this could have worked, but I believe that time has long since passed. With so much outsourcing playing out in organizations today, using this strategy could leave you in the dust and further behind. In addition, you're most likely overestimating your chance for success. Don't think you can easily breathe through that entry level job. In fact, many highly intelligent and hard-working people quit or get fired at entry level for the reasons I listed a few paragraphs above. It's not that you're stupid or lazy; it's just that customer service entry level position is ill suited for you. Unfortunately, you feel compelled to take it because you need that position to reach a few positions above in the company. Positions that you're better suited. I'm here to tell you; you probably won't make it. Entry level jobs have the highest level of turnover for a reason. Working your way up within a large and established company is no longer a viable method to slowly but surely get out of the Reverse Peter Principle.

There exists a bizarre solution toward getting out of the Reverse Peter Principle. It's making use of emotional intelligence. What you do is pretend to be aligned with the values, beliefs, attitudes, etc. of someone of importance in the company. You must be a talented actor/actress and not come across as transparent. You always accept offers to go to diner and play golf. You take a passive approach to your job so to not cause too much trouble. Most of your work using this strategy will be done during your off hours anyway. Eventually, if you start to win enough favours, you'll get trained to do the higher position within your competence and get placed into that position automatically. The key here is to only play along until then. If the boss is a jerk, you must agree for the time being, but once you become a boss yourself, you can surprise the world by completely ditching all the garbage he or she taught you by inserting your own values. I call this process falling through the cracks, but it's a very convoluted path. For example, I'm certain Ron Paul used this method to work his way up to a US congressman.

The only truly practical solutions I can find are entrepreneurial ventures. Through entrepreneurial spirit, an individual can avoid the Reverse Peter Principle by creating his/her own job within his/her own abilities. I recommend that governments hand gifted young people, especially gifted young poor people, business loans rather than educational loans for this very reason.

The Hyperactive Peter Principle

The Hyperactive Peter Principle is a coin term I created back in 2006 to explain the process of an employee let go due to downsizing after being promoted into his level of incompetence, all but to subsequently return into the workplace in a position far below his competence in the time span of no longer than a year. The result being that in attempts to alleviate the Peter Principle, the economy may have rid itself of incompetence through hierarchy, but thanks to overcompensation, we now have an incompetence in efficiency. The downside employee is not working to his potential. Therefore, we have an efficiency loss in exchange for ridding ourselves of leadership incompetence. No overall progress has been made. Of course, crazy and convoluted hyperactive Peter Principles such as this could be avoided if demotion were legal in the work place, but I wouldn't count on that entering the civilian work scene any time soon.

Solutions: Hyperactive Peter Principle

Much like the solutions in the Reversed Peter Principle, a victim of Hyperactive Peter Principle must calmly repeat the following words before brazenly spamming out resumes, "I have experience, I have connections, I should have some savings to make use in times such as these." If you don't have a decent savings account after 10 to 30 years of stable middle class work in your given industry, barring some notable exceptions such as a nasty divorce, I truly have no sympathy for you.

Now, what you have to do is much like the solution I gave for the Reversed Peter Principle: entrepreneurial ventures. In many ways, you should have it better than some kid who feels compelled to start a business because all he can get is a grocery bagging job with his college degree. You have experience, so over time you have gained some valuable skills that can apply to your business. You have connections, people whom you can hire to help you here and there or make into clients for your business. You hopefully have savings that you can use toward capita for the business rather than having to risk taking out a loan. By all means, if you can easily get that lower tiered job to secure some guaranteed passive income in the mean time, go ahead, but you will probably have to start and grow a business on the side to move back within your level of competence. Once the business earns much greater income than your job, quit the job.

-Donovan D. Westhaver


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Voted up and useful and linked to my hub "How To Lessen The Frustration of Workplace Incompetence."

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Truly enlightening. Of course it starts with getting the right people for the job. Having the right skills and knowledge and the right attitude to accomplish the tasks assigneg. moreover, the personality of this individual must be congruent with that of the corporate culture. Training and developing temployees play a crucial role in moving them up. I believe that companies should exhaust all efforts to help the person, thus helping the company. However, if after all the efforts, they still lack the needed skills, they must go. In the end, this is not a rehabilitation program, it's a business.

    • Erich Lagasse profile image

      Erich Lagasse 

      6 years ago

      Recognizing what are your strengths and weaknesses can be difficult, especially if you have been working at the same position for a few years. Nonetheless, it's important for employees to realize what they are good at and what they are not to grow professionally. We recently posted an article that emphasizes the importance of recognizing your career stall points. - Erich


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