Career Advice For Managers And Staff – The Peter Principle

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” (Dr Laurence Peter, 1919-90, Canadian academic, from the 1969 book, The Peter Principle, written by Dr Peter and Raymond Hull – Peter was the academic; Hull the writer)

Far from being an indictment of people, Laurence Peter’s ideas were mostly focused on the weaknesses of typical organisations, and the threat that they present to the well-being of their people.

Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s 1969 book The Peter Principle is a study of hierarchies (Peter coined the scientific term ‘hierarchiology’) and how people behave within them in relation to promotion and competence. Laurence Peter also asserted that, “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”, although he places the blame on organisations, not employees, and urges people to prioritise their health and happiness rather than struggle to meet the unhealthy demands of a promotion-too-far, in an uncaring hierarchy.

Notably Laurence Peter observed that bosses who are competent in their roles tend to assess employees according to their output and results, whereas incompetent bosses tend to assess employees according to their input and adherence to rules and policies, etc. This remains a feature of poorly managed organisations and hierarchies.

Peter also suggested that ‘super-competence’ in an employee is more likely to result in dismissal than promotion, which again is a feature of poor organisations, which cannot handle the disruption. A super-competent employee “…violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: [namely that] the hierarchy must be preserved..” which again is symptomatic of poorly run modern organisations, just as it was back in the 1960’s.

Peter also says of leadership in poor organisations: “Most hierarchies are nowadays so cumbered with rules and traditions……. that even high employees do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace. They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd. Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship..”