It is likely that at some point you have felt surrounded by useless people. And it is also likely that you have found that many people are not capable of doing their job well. And that many of these people hold positions of responsibility. You don’t have to rave.
Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian educator, analyzed this phenomenon and came to a conclusion: in a hierarchical system, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. It is what has gone down in history as the Peter Principle.
The principle of incompetence in action
In the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin proposed the law of natural selection according to which only the fittest survive, those who are able to best adapt to their environment. However, Laurence Peter postulated that there comes a point where the fittest are raised to a level for which they are unfit.
Peter’s law, as the “incompetence principle” is also known, states that, in a hierarchical organization, people who stand out, either because they do their job well or for another positive reason, are promoted to levels of greater responsibility, to the point that they come to occupy a position that is too high for them, whose responsibilities they cannot assume and reach their maximum level of incompetence.
Laurence Peter deduced that:
1. Over time, every position is usually filled by an employee unable to perform his duties.
2. The actual work is done by employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.
In other words, eventually most of the high positions tend to be occupied by a person who is incompetent or inadequate for the performance of the same, so that in the end the work is carried out by lower category employees who have the necessary skills.
According to the Peter Principle, if someone is doing his job well because he has the right skills and/or is prepared, instead of allowing him to continue to shine and raise his salary, the company usually rewards him with a promotion.
The problem is that this person may not be the most appropriate person to cover this new position because he does not have the appropriate training or skills.
Interestingly, if the person manages to survive in that position, it is possible that they will move to the next level, and so they will continue to climb in the organization, but the higher they go, the deeper the waters they will have to swim in and the further away they will be from the coast and what he knows and dominates.
As a result, he is likely to make more mistakes and the organization’s productivity will suffer. However, often these people begin to suffer from performance blindness, so that the more their incompetence grows and the more positions they climb, the more competent they perceive themselves to be, suffering what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
A very real problem with disastrous consequences
Despite the fact that the statement of the Peter Principle was based largely on the experiences of Laurence Johnston Peter himself and the Canadian writer, playwright and journalist Raymond Hull, with whom he wrote the book “The Peter Principle” in 1969, the truth is that his theory has been proven.
In 2017, researchers from the University of Minnesota, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Yale School of Business analyzed the performance of sales workers at 131 companies and found that “Organizations prioritize current job performance in promotion decisions instead of other observable characteristics that better predict managerial performance.”
They also warned that “The costs of promoting workers with less managerial potential are high” because they lead to inefficiency. Interestingly, they found that the problem becomes more acute the more responsibilities management roles imply, which means that the higher you go up the pyramid, the more likely it is that you will find people unable or inadequate to fulfill their obligations.
It should be noted that although the Peter principle has been studied in the business field, this trend can be seen in different spheres. In families or groups of friends, for example, the most efficient members are often overloaded with chores and obligations when they show particular efficiency.
The problem is that in this way is obtained the opposite result to the one that was desired because the person at the top will end up overloaded under the weight of obligations, having to manage tasks that are outside of their range of competences. Then the mistakes, failures and corresponding frustrations of the other party arise.
Can the Peter Principle be deactivated?
All is not lost, as indicated by researchers from the Fluminense Federal University, who remind that it is always advisable to resort to training. Keep in mind that managerial work requires different skills to be successful, as opposed to an employee position, which means that it is better to train people who are going to be promoted to ensure that they have the necessary tools and competencies.
On the other hand, it is important to abandon the idea that professional or personal success is measured exclusively through promotions. The idea that to succeed you have to move up does not take into account the abilities, training or even the aspirations of people.
There are different ways to reward good performance, not all of which have to lead to a promotion. The race does not necessarily have to be “up” if a person does not like to lead teams or does not feel comfortable or qualified for it. Someone might feel happy, fulfilled, and valuable in a subordinate position, if he loves what he does and performs well.
It is important not to be blinded by career possibilities or higher social status. You have to be honest with yourself and ask yourself if you are really interested or if you are made for certain positions. It is better to shine in what we are good at, than to cast our shadow from above.
Farias, B. et. Al. (2021) The Peter Principle and learning: A safer way to promote workers. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications; 576: 126023.
Benson, A.; Li, D. & Shue, K. (2018) Promotions and the Peter Principle. Quarterly Journal of Economics, Forthcoming; 134(4): 2085-2134.