I just finished reading this book for the first time.  I heard about the Peter Principle for years and usually just chuckled to myself about it.  Now that I have read the book, that chuckle has turned to a full on guffaw (Mostly because I see it at work in real life and I'm slightly twisted that way).

From WikiPedia:

The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." While formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1968 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter, the principle has real validity. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".

Once I stopped laughing, I started to look in concentric circles around my own desk and asked myself if I am at Final Placement.  Nope, still getting work done....LOL 

Question:  What does your organization do to prevent careers from "Petering out"?

basking2's picture

A method I saw used by a manager to pick the next manager was to see if they naturally persued the activities of the role without the title and pay. That is to say, he tried to nudge an individual to mentor, guide, and summarize activities of a new hire to see if he would step-up to the challenge in the hopes of offering him a new manager role.

Seemed to work well, but I can see where this method would fail in many circumstances.


Mark's picture
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...except rarely because management has gotten challenging enough - which is to say complex enough - that at some level folks really don't know what the next level is or does, and so pursuing it is a bit random.

We hope someday to make it clear to everyone, so effective managers and effective careers happen naturally, together, for everyone.

rwwh's picture
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I have heard about organizations where everyone's contract said they could be demoted once in their career. That way promotions can be performed as in other organizations, and when the Peter principle hits, you have a good talk between employer and employee and put him/her back one level.


Mark's picture
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I like that idea for organizations.  I suspect it's true under the radar at a lot of places, but no one wants to admit it.

I think almost every senior person I know chuckles at how much they thought their career had to be linear and straight up when they were younger...and how, when they look back, it was as crooked and up-and-down-y as it could have been.

I've long felt that the key to a career path to the top level of most larger firms (though that is only place to aspire to) is based on the John Smale and Lee Iaccoca rule: hit one GIGANTIC grand slam home run in early or mid-career (Smale got Crest the ADA seal of approval and was later the CEO and Chair of Procter, and Iaccoca launched the Mustang (and later the minivan) and was the CEO of Chrysler.)

And I absolutely believe in the Peter Principle.

430jan's picture

That is severely depressing.

jhack's picture


Did you mean to say: 

" (though that is the only place to aspire to)" 


" (though that is not the only place to aspire to)"

...Just curious...

John Hack

Mark's picture
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My gaffe, thanks John.

MsSunshine's picture

For all my staff, I have a spreadsheet with characteristics/requirements of all job level.  I talk to them about the items at their job level and the levels above them.  In order to promote them, I tell them that they have to be doing well at their level (obviously).  But they also have to show they can do the level above.  There are all sort of ways they can show capabilities without actually doing that level.  They are good with that when you tell them explicitly that you don't want to promote them to have them hate the job or fail & get fired!  It's not fool proof obviously.  But it does give me a level of comfort - or knowledge of what we'll have to really work on after the promotion.  It also makes it really clear to them what they will be measured on at that level.  I have had some people decide that they don't really want to do that job!

Mark's picture
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I like your idea, Sunshine!  Showing them roughly the differences, and sharing WHY it's important... BRILLIANT.

Keep in mind that you may want to ask again at some point in the future if they initially demur, because thoughts about careers do change. 



terrih's picture

For years I thought that making me a manager would fulfill the Peter Principle in my career. ;-)

Fortunately, by the time it became a possibility I no longer felt that way. I guess I grew, or something. No, I don't guess, I know.

Mark's picture
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lbongaer's picture

I tend to agree with Sam and Sunshine. If we understand the Peter principle, we should be able to avoid it: 

a) By ensuring first of all we don't promote people because they are good at what they do, but for the potential of what they could do at a higher level.

b) By expecting that the new manager (director/VP/...) won't be perfect in all (s)he does, and will need feedback/coaching/... in his or her new job as well.


stephenbooth_uk's picture

 I see the Peter Principle as, in part at least, a failure of succession.  I'm not talking about some old style personnel, corporation wide, function here, but the very specific and local case of you and your team.

In one of the casts (delegation I think), maybe more, M&M say that when it comes time for you to be promoted you should ideally have at least a couple of people on your team who could step up.  People who through delegation and coaching, maybe even deputising for you when you're  away on projects or leave, have gained the knowledge and skills they need to do your job, whilst you have been gaining the skills and knowledge you need to do your boss's job when she moves up.  People you can recommend to your boss to take over.

In that case they should be able to hit the ground at at least a brisk jog, if not running, and be well clear of incompetant.





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Experience is how you avoid failure, failure is what gives you experience.

terrih's picture

Mark, you're too kind.

And--what the heck are you doing on the forum at 3:30 in the morning??? Seems to me you gave me some good advice about sleep... not eating your own dog food there? :)

Mark's picture
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I often have calls late at night to satisfy clients in other time zones, and I'm maniacal about my calendar, so I knew I could sleep in a bit the next morning.

I hate to sleep (and eat, and drive), but I do know what I need for health.  I am maybe one of the most fit and healthy near 50 year olds in our community, and can pull all-nighters every once in a while and it doesn't bother me.   If I go to bed at 4 am one night, and then wake up at 8 and start the next day at nine, followed by a 11 pm bedtime that day for a 6 am wake up, it works just fine.

And you need to check forum history! ;-)   Been like this for years.  It's our company, and people need answers (sometimes mistakenly overnight)

If you want to pull an all-nighter once a month, we don't think of that as violating our guidance about sleep.

And I gotta tell you, I'm lucky about sleep.  I lay down, I'm asleep.  I wake up at the alarm, I'm awake.

And it's for a good cause (someone else, not me).


terrih's picture

Silly of me to rib you for that... and your guidance for me was for someone with health issues. Clearly someone who's healthy overall can fudge here and there.

And yes, I've noticed a LOT of wee hours on the forum...  ;-)

Maybe you're lucky about sleep... or maybe it's a function of being in shape and all that. I've noticed I sleep better when I'm exercising. I just hate exercising. *sigh*

AManagerTool's picture

I was waiting for everyone to comment and the thread to die down before commenting.

The Peter Principle is not JUST a selection/succession issue.  At the core of the Peter Principle is simply bad management.  Marks comments about the PP being alive and well correlates nicely to his assertions that bad management is rampant.

The cure for the Peter Principle is right in front of you under the general heading of good management practices.  The very things that are described by Mark and Mike are the cure.

  1. Good hiring
  2. Coaching
  3. Delegation
  4. One on ones
  5. Feedback
  6. Honest Metrics based performance management
  7. Having the intestinal fortitude to give feedback/coach/fire for bad performance and the inverse

Alas, The Peter Principle is alive and well because we as managers do not follow these practices. 

I'll restate it simply:

You have the cure, do you have what it takes to take it?

terrih's picture

I haven't read the book, but one does get the impression that the Peter Principle is inevitable. Thanks for pointing out that it's not!

I'd suggest another item for your list:

8. Succession Planning