Extracts from The Peter Principle

I recently finished reading The Peter Principle. It was written by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull and was published in 1969.

It’s central thesis is that given enough time, and assuming the existence of enough ranks in a hierarchy, each employee will rise to, and remain at, their level of incompetence.

Overall I found it an insightful read, with it’s cynical, tongue in cheek tone often being quite humorous. It does, however, show it’s age with some problematic heteronormative and sexist views in a handful of places. Remember it was written over 50 years ago.

Below are number of extracts from the book that I found compelling or noteworthy.

In time I saw that all such cases had a common feature. The employee had been promoted from a position of competence to a position of incompetence. I saw that, sooner or later, this could happen to every employee in every hierarchy.

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence

Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties

The percussive sublimation is a pseudo-promotion. Some Blockett-type employees actually believe that they have received a genuine promotion; others recognize the truth. But the main function of a pseudo-promotion is to deceive people outside the hierarchy. When this is achieved, the maneuver is counted a success.

…the larger the hierarchy, the easier is the lateral arabesque.

The competence of an employee is determined not by outsiders but by his superior in the hierarchy. If the superior is still at a level of competence, he may evaluate his subordinates in terms of the performance of useful work—for example, the supplying of medical services or information, the production of sausages or table legs or achieving whatever are the stated aims of the hierarchy. That is to say, he evaluates output. But if the superior has reached his level of incompetence, he will probably rate his subordinates in terms of institutional values: he will see competence as the behavior that supports the rules, rituals and forms of the status quo.Promptness, neatness, courtesy to superiors, internal paperwork, will be highly regarded. In short, such an official evaluates input.

Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder

…in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence

In this instance, a good follower promoted to a position of leadership: a) Fails to exercise leadership b) Reduces efficiency among his subordinates c) Wastes the time of his superiors

Lasting happiness is obtainable only by avoiding the ultimate promotion, by choosing, at a certain point in one’s progress, to abandon one-upmanship, and to practice instead what he might have called Staticmanship.

He might have been happier had he realized that his was not a solitary example of misfortune, but that everyone else, in every hierarchal system was, like him, under the sway of the Peter Principle.

If at first you don’t succeed, try something else.

A popular falacy among these experts and their clients is that “Incompetence co-ordinated equals competence.””

Given enough time—and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy— each employee rises to, and remains at, his level of incompetence.

They cannot rise to a position of incompetence — they are already at the top — so they have a strong tendency to sidestep into another hierarchy — say from the army into industry, from politics into education, from show business into politics and so on — and reach, in the new environment, that level of incompetence which they could not find in the old. This is Compulsive Incompetence.

The board’s recommendation was carried out and J.Smugly, a competent engineer and mathematical genius, was promoted to assistant general manager. Smugly, competent in dealing with things, was incompetent at dealing with people. He had no appropriate people-formulas to help him decide about personnel matters. Not wishing to act on incomplete data, he postponed personnel decisions until pressure became so great that he made unwise, snap decisions. Smugly reached his level of incompetence through social inadequacy. It was recommended that he be assisted through the appointment of a personnel manager.

This in no way suggests that the ultimate promotion suddenly changes the former worker into an idler. Not at all! In most cases he still wants to work; he still makes a great show of activity; he sometimes thinks he is working. Yet actually little that is useful is accomplished

The patient cannot be drugged into competence and there is no tumor of incompetence which can be removed by a stroke of the scalpel

I have often observed Rigor Cartis, an abnormal interest in the construction of organization and flow charts

The Rigor Cartis patient will often display his charts prominently on the office walls, and may sometimes be seen, his work lying neglected, standing in worshipful contemplation of his icons

A sure mark of final placement is the habit of telling jokes instead of getting on with business

…create the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence