What Exactly is the Peter Principle and How Does it Work

What is the Peter Principle?
To what extent do you think a person succeeds in ambitions and final goals? The answer, some might find a little pessimistic, but nonetheless one of the sharpest and truest out there, can be the Peter Principle.
Workspirited Staff
Last Updated: Dec 21, 2017
In one line, the Peter Principle can be defined as: "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence". This means that an employee will be promoted and will continue to receive promotions till he reaches a level at which he is found to be incompetent. This means that if a company hires few people at a time, there will be a point at which its top posts will be filled with incompetent employees. This implies two things for a company - that the Peter Principle is an inevitability and that eventually the efficiency of the company drops. One can replace an incompetent employee by a more competent one, but this will again mean that he will keep getting promotions till he is rendered incompetent.
Personal development concept
Understanding the Principle
An explanation for this can be derived from a child (although the Peter Principle is meant for hierarchy). A toddler will pick up something and if it's small enough, will probably swallow it. He may start from a piece of food off the parent's dinner plate, then move onto the grass on the lawn, the dirt on the ground and eventually a nasty bug. The child may find the food tasty and be encouraged to try out something new. He will move out into the backyard, realizing that the grass can be uprooted and eaten. He may then move onto the ground beneath the grass at some point. At one point, he will encounter a bug in the grass, pick it up and eat it too. The bug will taste horrible and the kid, learning his lesson won't touch another bug. Now, the Peter Principle (not the generalized Peter principle, but the original one) is applied strictly to a hierarchic structure, but the process is more or less the same. One will attempt to perform some particular task in one situation, and if successful, will try it out in a more challenging environment, until it fails. And the process will not be used for anything larger. As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in his 1767 comedy Minna Von Barnhelm, "To become more than a sergeant? I don't consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly a worse general."
Dr. Peter and Hierarchiology
The name was coined by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle; along with it, came the entire 'study of hierarchy', or 'Hierarchiology'.

"Having formulated the Principle, I discovered that I had inadvertently founded a new science, Hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies. The term 'hierarchy' was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning includes any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of rank, grade or class. Hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration." ~ Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong
The Principle and The Government
The Peter Principle can be seen working all the time within the Government. You may find it working at its undermining best on the ones on top. A kid who grew up being the class president many times in school, does very well in college may find himself/herself blamed for everything when they attain a top post in the Government body, like a Governor, even the President. They may have been confident at the lower levels, understanding the piping and how to change it. So they keep advancing to posts higher and higher, until one day they realize that the job they've landed is too difficult for them. They simply may not be able to even keep up with the daily paperwork. Even the Presidents can be claimed by many as the prey of the concept.

In his book, Dr. Peter states that: "...when public speaking was a high art, spellbinding orator hope for nomination by a party, and the best orator among the candidates might win the seat. But of course the ability to charm to amuse, to inflame a crowd of ten thousand voters with voice and gestures did not necessarily carry with it the ability to think sensibly, to debate soberly and to vote wisely on the nation's business." This basically means that a person may qualify for a post he/she wasn't really fit for, on terms, entirely separate from the actual duties and responsibilities of the post.
Solutions for The Principle
There are two basic solutions formulated for disabling the degrading effect of the Peter Principle.
  • The first one would be to keep a definitive "win/lose" process, with no gray area in between. If an employee performs well, he/she is promoted. If they fail to deliver the necessary output, or even if they end up stagnated at a post, they are dismissed. This is done because, if an employee stays at a position, not going up or losing the job, there will be employees under them with more potential to rise. But they won't get the promotion because the position has already been taken up by the employee staying still. This can possibly cripple any further growth of the new employee and the company along with it.
  • The other solution is to not give an employee a promotion until and unless he/she shows, in their current jobs, the necessary qualities to shine in the new position. Until they do, they are kept at the same spot, giving room for someone else with the required qualifications. So, your promotion will depend on the reasoning that you're performing a job with the capabilities of being good at a higher level, not your current level.
The Peter Principle heralds the doom of a company or a politician standing still. In the end, a person will either reach a higher post or be dismissed. And even when he does reach the higher post, he gains the risk of reaching even higher up or losing the job, as a result promoting constant motion.