The Peter Principle – Myth or Reality?

06 November 2018

There’s a lot of unspoken rules about how workplace hierarchies develop, one of which is the Peter Principle. The theory comes from the book which shares its name, The Peter Principle, written in 1969 by Laurence J.Peter. The Principle itself: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

The principle states that workers who excel at their job eventually get promoted to a level at which they become incompetent, as they have to learn new skills to become competent in their new role. It effectively sets a ceiling on an employee’s career development, and also means they’re potentially damaging the company in the long run by doing a poor job.

While the original book was intended as satire to some extent, the Peter Principle has been hyped and taken seriously by many management thought leaders as ‘something to watch out for’. But is it more than a snappy maxim?

 

The Truth Of The Peter Principle

Nearly every maxim or adage has some truth to it: Higher positions in a company typically require a different skillset to effectively work with, which may not be the skillset that you started with. A salesman who knows how to sell his wares may be good at dealing with customers, but what if he’s promoted to a Sales Manager, and has to handle other salespeople?

Sales managers require managerial skills (obviously), as well as an ability to handle a much higher level of responsibility. A poor sales manager can upset relationships with customers and clients, the lifeblood of most companies, or give unclear goals for his subordinates to attain. Even if he can handle his role well, that just opens him up to more promotions. Head of Sales? Eventually he’ll reach a point where he can no longer take on more skills or responsibilities and assumes his level of incompetence, leaving him on the ‘Peter Plateau’.

 

What Not to Assume About The Peter Principle

While maxims and adages can be useful, there are always exceptions to the rule. Not every worker is going to become incompetent after being promoted, and avoiding the Peter Principle means making sure you employees are promoted to roles in which their previously-demonstrated skills still shine, and training them for any future skills that they will need.

Simply being good at sales, or IT, or engineering, doesn’t mean that they’ll be good at managing those departments: it’s a different skillset that should be trained before they take up the responsibility.

The Peter Principle can seem cynical, especially if you also take the Dilbert Principle into account: that poor workers will eventually end up in management roles to get them out of the workflow. But like any maxim, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Have faith in your employees, train them for new roles and always take their skillset into account.

At The Change Consultancy, we’re focused on making company change a simple and understandable process. Through our services you may find yet more untapped potential just waiting to be found in your workforce.