The Peter Principle

Bureaucracy at Work

The Peter Principle concept was introduced by Canadian sociologist Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter in his humoristic book of the same title. In his book, he describes the pitfalls of the bureaucracy in organizations witnessed during his extensive research into business organization and its management.

The Peter Principle book has attained such renown that The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent." ... "In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence," or, as Dr. Peters Principal explained more simply, "The cream rises until it sours."

The Peter Principle is so appropriate and meaningful a lesson for business, that it has found its way into Masters Degree (MBA) curriculae as a foundation for the next generation to protect itself. But it seems that this hierarchy within companies continues to be the organizational structure of choice for government and big business.

What is the Peter Principle?

Peter Principle Management is the concept that in bureaucratic organizations, new employees typically start in the lower ranks, but when they prove to be competent in the task to which they are assigned, they get promoted to a higher rank, generally management. This process of climbing up the hierarchical ladder can go on indefinitely, until the employee reaches a position where he or she is no longer competent. At that moment the process typically stops, since the established rules of bureaucracies make it very difficult to "demote" someone to a lower rank, even if that person would be a much better fit and happier in a non-management role. The net result of this principle is that most of the management levels of a bureaucracy will be filled by incompetent people, who got there because they were quite good at doing different (and usually, but not always, easier) work than the work they are currently expected to perform.

Further Reading

The Peter Principle

Peter's Quotations:
Ideas for Our Times

According to Laurence Johnston Pieter: Work is accomplished by those employees who have not reached their level of incompetence. Thus we can see why organizations still function even as Peter Principled employees accept one too many promotions. Laurence Peter provides an insightful analysis of why so many positions in so many organizations seem to be populated by employees who seem incompetent. This concept is likely to be ignored by most senior managers since to admit one's organization is suffering from this bureaucratic malady is admission that people have been improperly promoted. This, in turn, suggests that senior management might have attained their own level incompetence, and the problem is easily ignored, lest it become suggested that senior management be more closely examined for their incompetence.

An example:

If you're a proficient and effective software developer, you're most likely demonstrating peak competence in your job right now. As a result of your performance, your valuable contribution results in a promotion to a management position. In this new position, you now do few of the original tasks which gained you acclaim. In fact, little of your current job remains enjoyable, therefore your heart is no longer in your work, and it shows. Given this, promotions stop, and there you stay, until you retire or your company goes under due to mismanagement.

Companies will attract and expand on a certain level of incompetence. Once a company forms a culture of incompetence, only the incompetent staff will remain, and the competent ones will tire of trying to soar with eagles while surrounded by turkeys, and therefore leave.

Additional Resources

The end result is that non-growing companies are more likely to have incompetent employees at many levels of the organizational structure whereas growing companies add new positions and employees so fast that the inevitable results of the Peter Principle may be forestalled so long as growth continues.

Management consultants who recognize that the Peter Principle is in full swing in their clients organization often recommend percussive sublimations and lateral arabesque for high ranking employees to make room for new employees, because new employees are not yet at their level of incompetence thus they can actually do the work they were hired to do which increases total output of the organization. (cf: The 80 20 Rule)


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