The Peter Principle: Are You Where You Ought To Be?

The Peter Principle claims clueless worker

“You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.”

Laurence J Peter

My recent article, Procurement in the Roaring ‘20s, drew some interesting comments. Several focused on executive incompetence, with one commenter citing the Peter Principle as an explanation. So, what is the Peter Principle? Well, you once you hear it, you may say, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that before’.

The Peter Principle states that an employee who is continually promoted due to competence will eventually find themselves in a position for which they are unqualified. Sound familiar?

A worker performs well, and is rewarded with a promotion. They continue to do well in their role, and continue to get promoted. Eventually, they find themselves in a job the demands of which exceed their abilities, and they can no longer perform at a level deserving of reward. In other words, they are now incompetent.

The joke that struck a note

This theory was coined by Laurence J Peter in his 1968 bestseller, The Peter Principle. Delivered in a humorous and satirical tone, the book nonetheless struck a chord with millions of workers worldwide who either found themselves a victim of the Peter Principle, or working under those grossly unqualified for a managerial role.

Always looked upon as at best a theory with no more than face validity, a recent analysis of over 50,000 sales employees has leant it greater credence. And it makes sense.

The skills needed for managerial roles are not the same as those required for work nearer the coal face. The principle still holds today, where we have moved away from career ladders and closer to career lattices, where we often move sideways before moving up. Even if we remain in the same position, the Peter Principle will claim us in time, due to the relentless march of technology and progress. If you do not continually improve your skills, you too will fall victim.

Keep Ahead of the Pack (and Peter)

So if there is no safe place when it comes to the Peter Principle, no panic room to retreat to when it comes knocking, what can we do? Well, the answer is easier said than done: continually improve and develop skills. And this doesn’t only refer to the technical skills of your role, but also soft skills. It’s in the interests of organisations to ensure that their employees are well-equipped for the current position and any future position they may be in line for.

Regular use of skills gap analysis tools and services are crucial for tailoring a learning program that can not only improve current performance but get an employee ready for future roles. It’s often too late once a person is in a role for them to develop the skills necessary to execute it with competence. If somebody is offered a promotion, it’s within everyone’s interest that they are ready for its demands.

The cost of training today will always pay dividends tomorrow.

That said, it must be acknowledged that some people are just not suited to certain roles. But corporate psychology is a topic for another day. Today, let the takeaway be that continual training – both technical and soft – is essential if you want your organisation to avoid incompetent executives. Don’t let your employees fall victim to the Peter Principle; train them for today, and tomorrow.