I'm Ben Gruber

2013 / 24 April

The Peter Principle



In an email exchange last week, my extremely sharp Grandma mentioned the “Peter Principle” in reference to a recent political event. I quickly responded to the email with a purposely vague statement that could be interpreted as either firmly agreeing or disagreeing with her depending on how you read it. I needed to give myself a minute to Google the Peter Principle and figure out what the hell that meant. After wrapping my head around the concept, I fired back another email – adding to my ambiguous earlier response – with a positive critique of her analyses. The conversation continued and ended up heading in a couple of other directions before it eventually ended. I made it out without losing face… phew.


But now a week and half after receiving the email, I still have the Peter Principal stuck in my head. I can’t stop thinking about the concept. It is kind of like having a catchy song stuck in your head that you just can’t seem to shake. So just like you would re-listen to the song again to end the infinite repeat cycle from your mind, I am going to write about the Peter Principal to dislodge it from my frontal lobe.


So here is the Cliff Notes version of the principle. The Peter Principle was coined in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull with a book by the same name. The principle states that in a hierarchal organization where promotions are based on the quality of performance of a member in their current position, workers will eventually reach a point where they are no longer promoted, which is where they stay. This means that once a worker is not promoted, they by rule are not doing very well at their current job (or else they would have been promoted). This results in the majority of people in the organization “rising to their level of incompetence.” You can also continue along this thesis to conclude that most of the great work completed in an organization was done by person on the rise to the next level up.


To recap, the basic reason this happens is because in these types of organizations you are judged by how well you are doing in your current job rather than how well you will do at the next level up job. So for example, a brillant developer (“technical coder”), might be amazing at figuring out how to code a website, but if he was promoted to a managerial position (the next level up), the same personality traits that made him great at developing might make him terrible at managing, i.e. poor social skills (sorry to all developers for the blatant probably inaccurate stereotype).


Interesting right?!? And the best part of knowing about this principle is that you now finally have an explanation as to why your boss is your boss. Presumably, he or she was really good at whatever position they were in before they were promoted up to their current position. And since they have been in that position for a while now, you can take solace in the fact that the higher ups do not think he or she is doing very well (or else they would have been promoted). You can also give yourself a pat on the back for being one of the people who is actually driving the company forward by doing great work – that is if you are still rising up the ranks.


All of this talk makes me think of Office Space and the Bobs. Anyway, I feel good about getting this out of my head, on to digital paper and off the repeat cycle. Hopefully, I didn’t just transfer it to you.




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