The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter: Summary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a book worth considering. Be careful not getting too carried away quoting this book, however. Unlike other books I’ve read recently where the points are backed up with extensive research, this is instead more anecdotal. Nevertheless, the points made in here are ones to consider and whilst I don’t like to become too carried away by conjecture, many of the points seem to be remarkably true. If you’re looking to understand why some of us get further than others, then The Peter Principle might provide some answers…

Get the book here: The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter

What is the Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle is based upon this main idea: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence

But what does this really mean? Well, you must have come across people who display a level of incompetence. Whether it is indecisive politicians posing as resolute states people or military commanders whose timidity belies their dreadnaught rhetoric. What is apparent time and time again is that cases of incompetence share similar features. People get promoted from their position of competence into a position of incompetence, and it seems to happen in every level of a hierarchy.

The principle in action

People are broken into three classes: competent, moderately competent and incompetent. According to distribution theory, people will be distributed unevenly amongst these three classes. The majority of people will be moderately competent with the rest being either competent or incompetent.

The classic distribution curve where we all sit on somewhere…
Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay

As a competent individual gains new promotions, they climb closer to their level of incompetence where they cannot climb anymore.

Imagine a competent student, they follow the textbook and schedule perfectly. They are clearly competent, so competent that they manage to secure a role teaching others the content they know so well. This new teaching role, however, requires a different set of skills. Where the student originally had to follow everything to the book; the teacher needs to improvise and break the rules sometimes. The competent student soon becomes the struggling teacher as they cannot perform to the new standards set for them. They move from a level of competence to a level of incompetence.

The principle is only a joke right?

Many people do not want to accept this principle and because of this they might try to rebut this principle with these following examples:

The Percussive Sublimation

Time and time again you see people who are incompetent achieving another promotion. If this individual is incompetent, how can they be promoted? Peter’s answers this question by suggesting that these “promotions” aren’t in-fact promotions but instead the individual being moved from one unproductive position to another. Whenever you see this happening ask yourself: Does the individual undertake any greater responsibility than before? Do they accomplish more in their new role? If you answer no to these questions then it’s most likely a pseudo-promotion.

The Lateral Arabesque

This is another type of pseudo-promotion. Without receiving a pay-rise the individual is instead given a new longer title and then moved into a different office. Although the incompetent individual looks as if they’ve gained another promotion, they have instead only gained a “promotion” by name.

Hierarchical Exfoliation

On the other side of the issue people may argue along the lines of: Why did this super-competent person get fired then? In most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence. Ordinary incompetence is no cause for a dismissal: it’s a slow route to promotion. However, super-competence is an issue. In organizations, being a good performer is important, however, upholding the hierarchy is even more important. If you are such a good performer that you challenge how everything works, you will soon find yourself in trouble.

How to get promoted quickly using “Pull”

Think of the classic quote: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Pull works this way, it involves getting promoted through utilizing relationships by blood, marriage or acquittance with a person above them in the hierarchy.

1. Find a patron

This is someone above you in the hierarchy who can help you rise. You may think that your promotion rate depends on good or bad reports from your immediate superior. Whilst that may be correct, management may also be aware that your superior has reached their level of incompetence meaning that they will attach less importance on their recommendations and more on a competent high-flyer in the organization.

2. Motivate the patron

An unmotivated patron is no patron. The individual needs to see that they will gain something by assisting you, or lose something by not assisting you. Present to them your case and explain how if they help you, they will also help themselves.

3. Get out from under

Imagine you’re trying to climb a ladder to get to the top, but above you is someone who doesn’t want to go any further and they’re blocking the route. It’s the same with promotions. Sometimes you cannot progress further because someone else is holding up the channel. What you should do is cross over to the other side, find a new ladder and climb that one without hinderance, eg. leave the company and find a new role…

4. Be flexible

There’s only so much one patron can do for you. When the time comes, branch out and get to know others who can also help you.

Overall, using “Pull” promotion should speed your upward motion through the hierarchy much faster and get you to your level quicker.

How to get promoted slowly using “Push”

The opposite of “Pull” promotion is “Push”. According to Peter’s this is the slower method of reaching your level of incompetence. The main reason for this is because in established organizations, the downward pressure of the seniority nullifies the upward force of this method.

Signs, symptoms and perils of push

You can see this method of promotion manifested by an abnormal interest in study, vocational training and self-improvement courses.

But why is this an issue? Well Peter’s explains that by increasing someone’s area of competence, it will result in a larger number of promotional steps to reach their level of incompetence. Think of it this way: Suppose a competent local sales person studies a foreign language to improve their prospects, it’s more likely they will have to fill multiple posts overseas; potentially being away from family and friends, only to reach their level of incompetence slower than if they used pull to help them ascend.

So, the main idea behind being promoted is: Never stand where you can sit; never walk when you can ride and never push when you can pull.

Do you need to follow first in order to become a good leader?

This is something bandied around in admin circles. The idea that you need to work your way up; if you want to lead at the top, you need to first follow at the bottom. According to Peter’s this is the wrong way to look at it.

Earlier we discussed how super-competence can damage the structure of the hierarchy and if you attempt to dismantle that, you will find yourself in trouble. The ‘follower-leader’ concept works in a similar way.

In a simple hierarchy, the employee who proves himself to be good at obeying orders will get a promotion to a rank where it is their job to give orders. If they have no leadership skills then they will sit there as they have found their level of incompetence.

But, say if you really are a talented leader? Someone who can come up with new original ideas and motivate others. Peter’s uses an example of a bicycle delivery firm employee challenging his employer Mercury’s current processes and soon finding himself without a job.

Although he was a competent leader with new ideas, challenging the hierarchy and the way things are done won’t work out. Instead, the individual founded their own firm called Pegasus and within 3 years drove Mercury out of business.

The moral of the story? If you’re a good leader: Lead. Make your own hierarchy to lead, instead of trying to change others. Although a follower may win promotions, most established hierarchies are so cumbered with rules, traditions and ideals that even high employee’s will never get the experience of really leading; instead they follow precedents, obey regulations and move at the head of the crowd.

How hierarchies are changing

In the olden days, entry into most careers was governed by random placement, usually based on the employer’s prejudices or on chance. This system still operates in some hierarchies, particularly the smaller ones.

This method of placement often puts an employee into a position that they are barely competent to fill. Their mediocre work is blamed on their character, flabby will-power or just laziness. They push themselves harder and tell themselves adages “Where there’s a will there’s a way”.

Random placement has been superseded by examinations and aptitude tests. The prevailing attitude has changed to: If you don’t succeed, try something else. The main difference between tested and untested employees are that the tested ones reach their level of incompetence in fewer steps and a shorter time.

What happens when you reach your level of incompetence

Does the ultimate promotion to your level of incompetence change the former worker into an idler? Peter’s suggests this is not the case: it’s the opposite. These newly incompetent individuals’ still want to work, they make a great show of activity and even sometimes trick themselves into thinking they’re working, but the nature of their incompetence means that very little is actually accomplished.

Peter’s calls this final placement syndrome. Patients of this syndrome often rationalise the situation: they claim that their occupational incompetence is because of things like physical ailments. They might state “If I could only get rid of my headaches, I could concentrate on my work”.

Not only this but it has an ever more increasing sociological importance. The component ailments have acquired a high-status value. A patient will boast of their symptoms; they will show a perverse kind of competence in developing more health issues as an accolade instead of a recognizing it as a wake-up call to call it a day.

What if you don’t want to be promoted?

The idea of not wanting to be promoted sounds bizarre. Surely people want to work their way up the ladder and become more powerful? Well, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes people might want to stay in a certain role before they have reached their level of incompetence because they enjoy it.

But, turning down roles is never that simple. You do not want to upset the hierarchy, because if you do, you won’t have any roles to enjoy. What you can instead do to keep the role you love is exercise “creative incompetence”.

What this means is that you show just enough incompetence in your role to not flag-yourself as a poor performer but not enough competence to show you deserve a promotion. What this inevitably leads to is management thinking you have already reached your level of incompetence and considering others for promotion instead.

If you love your job and are happy then this is an infallible way to avoid the ultimate promotion. Peter’s states this is the key to health and happiness at work and in your private life.

Most important takeaway

Competent individuals rise until they reach their level of incompetence. These individuals will then stay at that level thrashing away in order to try and gain further promotions. In the end, they won’t receive any, but they’ll instead suffer the negative effects of burnout.

If you want to be truly happy in your job: find your level of competence and then try to stay there.

Get the book here: The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter

Published by Tim Bennett

An avid reader who likes to read anything which could challenge my beliefs. I like to write summaries over on The Herston Project so make sure to check them out :).

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